The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Gracie’s Café Spells Renewal For Former Inmates

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Aug 5, 2014 7:30PM

Sometimes there is grace in a cup of coffee. Sometimes there’s outright redemption. Gracie’s Café serves as an apprentice coffeehouse for the formerly incarcerated and is celebrating nearly a year of caffeine with benefits, sparking second careers that hinge on hope.

Since opening last September, the West Side coffeehouse has spurred 12 of its 18 participants onto full-time employment with companies including Eataly and Pete’s Fresh Market. Launched by St. Leonard’s Ministries, Gracie’s strategically puts its staff out front, training them to become an establishment’s face, as well as dice onions in back. Few food-service skills are also of better market value, they’ve found, than some sleight of hand with an espresso machine while the customer remains in view.

According to Manager Mike Ellert, “St. Leonard’s had been doing a culinary arts program, back-of-the-house training. But we found that a lot of the jobs were in front-of-the-house skills—cashiering, barista skills, sandwich making, pastry trays, greeting people. The back-of-the-house skills were great, but if they had some front-of-the-house skills too, they had a much better chance at getting a job.”

Gracie’s serves Intelligentsia, a partner in founding the café, as well as pastries, sandwiches, salads and soups. Its locale on the ground floor of the historic Harvest Commons building opposite Union Park also makes for a fruitful symbiosis. Harvest Commons, a revitalized Art Deco stunner, provides low-income housing for many former felons and much of Gracie’s staff. The building’s own sustainable rebirth, replete with rooftop and adjacent ground-floor gardens, supplies vegetables for the café and inducts participants into the joys of urban tilling.

Founded in 1954, St. Leonard’s provides comprehensive residential, case-management and employment services for those released from prison without the resources to rebuild their lives. Recidivism rates for its participants top out at 20 percent, while the state average exceeds 50 percent. A staff employment coordinator also ensures participants tailor their training to companies willing to hire those with minor past offenses, typically drug related, dotting their records.

Gracie’s Café is located at 1517 W. Warren Blvd.