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This article was published 4/11/2014 (1803 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They put a restaurant on Main Street next to a shelter that houses addicts trying to quit crack and meth. On Monday, one man is squatted outside the restaurant doors, legs crossed on the sidewalk, while another woman leans against a nearby wall, staring at nothing.
This restaurant has waiters and other staff who have had hard lives, too. Maybe drugs, maybe physical abuse, maybe jail. Otherwise, they might be homeless themselves.
But look inside. The 30-seat restaurant has a clean, bright, fashionable decor that would meld right in on trendy Corydon Avenue. The bistro menu would not be out of place, either.
Welcome to the Lunch Bell, one of the most unique social experiments to ever serve up a mean (and lean) turkey sub; a newly minted eatery that defies almost every standard recipe for success.
"It'll take some time for the word to get out," admitted Lunch Bell general manager Josh Marantz. "It will take some time for people to get used to the area, but you have to start somewhere."
'It will take some time for people to get used to the area, but you have to start somewhere'— Lunch Bell general manager Josh Marantz
The Lunch Bell is located at 662 Main St., almost directly across from the Mission, which feeds the legions of core-area homeless on a daily basis. But its own mission is much different: to provide a classic bistro food option to some 3,000 people who work in a three-kilometre radius — all while staffing the restaurant with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
So far, business has been slow, largely because there has been no publicity or grand opening. The restaurant is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays and so far has attracted on average less than 10 customers a day.
That's not enough to begin covering the start-up costs — the Lunch Bell received almost $580,000 via the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy, using the City of Winnipeg's CentreVenture Development Corp. as a conduit for financing. That financing is designated for capital construction and staff salaries.
Along with Marantz, the Lunch Bell employs executive chef Chris Tascona and sous chef Bev Villagarcia, who in turn cook and mentor as many as four staff from Changes, a non-profit organization designed to provide support and services to clients with limited life and educational skills.
In general, those clients could suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, a history of abuse trauma or addictions that may or may not include jail time. In other words, individuals who are previously virtually unemployable.
Changes director Dave Hebert called the Lunch Bell project unique, even by his organization's standards, due to the training component.
"There's no guarantees it will work," Hebert said. "But I believe the model is good. I believe the program is good. And I believe the food is good."
The staff arrive at the restaurant with zero skills in food preparation, following a 20-week off-site basic training program (resumés, budgeting). What follows is an on-the-job 20-week course at the restaurant that begins with basic food cleanliness and, if all goes well, ends with a student preparing an order without direct supervision several weeks later.
"It's a working kitchen with real-world experience and real-world demands," said Tascona. "They know they're not here to play. This is work. But they know we're not forcing them, and these are skills they can use."
At least, in theory. Of the four students originally sent by Changes to the Lunch Bell, one quit after the first day. But the remaining three said they have enjoyed the experience, even though one acknowledged, "It's a good restaurant in a bad place."
"I will not deny it's challenging," Villagarcia said. "But it's very fulfilling. I call them all my babies."
For example, one of the workers was recently dispatched to the legislative-building cafeteria to understand the skills he learned at the Lunch Bell could be easily transferred.
When he was given a positive review, Villagarcia cried.
"Honestly, I thought it would be chaotic," Marantz added. "But it's been the opposite. It's been a blessing in disguise. With our students, they're so excited to be here. They're so excited to learn. It's invigorating to a grizzled old veteran like me."
However, Tascona realizes the Lunch Bell will succeed or fail based on the quality of food and service, not from any notion of social conscience.
"It's all about the food," he said, noting the menu is entirely fresh and local and based on simplicity.
The business model, Marantz said, is to have the Lunch Bell become self-sustaining in a year. That would take about 90 customers a day, including catering (the restaurant delivers anywhere in the city and is counting on catering for at least 50 per cent of business).
On Monday, there were only five customers, including a reporter. Later, Marantz landed a catering job for 40 people.
"We're not setting our sights too high," he said. "But I'd love not only for this to be successful but see another location in another area of the city where it's difficult to open."
Until then, only world of mouth and taste will tell. Hebert also envisions a similar model for a different business venture. Maybe a landscaping firm, for example. But for now, the fate of this "socially conscious" business venture will suffice.
"I'm as curious as the next person, to be honest," he said.
Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.
Updated on Wednesday, November 5, 2014 at 12:55 PM CST: Adds link, adds address