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East End's Front Porch Cafe and workforce development program reopen after pandemic hiatus
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East End's Front Porch Cafe and workforce development program reopen after pandemic hiatus

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Duane Brown, director of workforce development at CHAT - Church Hill Activities and Tutoring, talks about reopening the Front Porch Café in Richmond, Va., after it closed in September due to the pandemic. The Café teaches students skills needed for restaurant work. Video by Alexa Welch Edlund/Times-Dispatch

Fresh hot coffee, giant muffins bursting with blueberries and chocolate chunks, heart-healthy lunchtime salads and finger-lickin’ pulled chicken barbecue sliders — Richmond’s Front Porch Cafe is open again.

The cafe, located at 2600 Nine Mile Road across from Bon Secours Richmond Community Hospital, shut down last September due to COVID-19.

Opened in 2017, it operates as the flagship entity of the workforce development program of Church Hill Activities & Tutoring, or CHAT, a nonprofit organization that works with Church Hill youth by offering educational opportunities through an academy and after-school programs, as well as workforce development and job readiness programs.

The latter works with individuals ages 16 to 24, particularly those with little to no work experience. Training starts with a foundation that’s built on three pillars: attendance, presence and communication. From there, the technical skills are gained by working in the cafe, both front and back of the house.

“Employers, that’s what they’re looking for,” said Duane Brown, CHAT’s workforce development director, about those three foundational characteristics. “If you have those three ... at the end of the day, you can transfer those skills.”

Brown sat at a table Tuesday morning — the tables were handmade by students in CHAT’s Nehemiah’s Workshop, a woodworking program — and marveled aloud at how the cafe was able to remain open last year throughout the spring and summer when many other restaurants closed. Back then, it was preparing and serving family meals, either curbside or from a walk-up screen at the front of the cafe. In many cases, customers purchased family meal packages for others in need.

On top of the cafe being a valuable resource for the community, none of the roughly eight Front Porch employees lost their jobs during that time last year, something Brown attributes to the CHAT board of directors’ willingness to make sure its employees at all levels were compensated.

“Everyone got paid — everyone,” Brown said. “The board committed to it; they had the funds.”

They decided to reopen again this week because they felt customers would be comfortable coming back. The cafe had two pop-ups at the end of May to test the waters. Both events were highly successful, Brown said.

Whereas other restaurants are having trouble finding workers in the aftermath of COVID-19, Brown said, Front Porch had enough applicants to be able to open this week with a full staff of eight. He also said he gets calls from restaurants and industry associations to inquire whether he can offer anyone from the cafe to work in those places.

The pandemic pushed many line cooks, chefs and others in the restaurant industry to reach an “epiphany” when it came to work-life balance, he said.

When restaurants closed, those people “figured out other ways to make money ... and they’re not wiling to go back to the grind,” Brown said. They’ve found flexibility in other jobs, and even with restaurants offering hiring bonuses and other incentives to try to find employees, “none of it seems to be working.”

Front Porch is all staffed up, though. One of the cafe’s new hires is India Williams, 18, a sophomore at James Madison University and an Armstrong High School graduate who grew up in Richmond’s Fulton neighborhood. She saw the posting about CHAT — she was a CHAT student years ago — and wanted to be part of something that was small and local and aligned with her mission to help her community. She wants to be a teacher in Richmond Public Schools.

In the meantime, she’s learning the intricate process of making a good cup of coffee, she said.

“I know what CHAT does for the community, and I’m big on helping the community,” Williams said Tuesday. She likes that rather than CHAT trying to change the neighborhood, “they are part of the neighborhood.”

Brown said many cafe employees echo Williams, in that they’re looking for work in an environment that isn’t “toxic.”

“They have said, ‘I just want to be somewhere where I can feel included and safe and productive,’” Brown said, and where they can learn skills that will ultimately help them get better jobs that lead to making a difference in their communities.

“We talk about that early on — goals,” he said, referring to cafe employees’ future ambitions. Simply put, “we want [the cafe] to be a revolving door.”

Front Porch Cafe serves hot and iced coffees, espresso, lattes, teas and other beverages, as well as grab-and-go items like muffins, giant cookies, and yogurt and oatmeal parfaits.

Need something more substantial? The cafe offers the Church Hill Breakfast — two eggs, choice of meat, collard greens, new potatoes and toast — as well as short rib hash, scrambled egg breakfast sliders, and chicken and waffles. Lunchtime means grilled sandwiches and sliders, Cajun beef stew and the Legacy Farm House Salad, made from ingredients from nearby Legacy Farm.

The cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Information can be found at www.frontporchrva.com.

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