Student Perspective: Five Business Lessons from a Community Kitchen

Philabundance Community Kitchen
Photo credit: Philabundance

In North Philadelphia, one community kitchen aims to both relieve hunger now and end hunger forever.

Philabundance Community Kitchen (PCK) is an adult culinary arts vocational training program, run under the umbrella of Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger-relief organization.

Through a three-month full-time program, PCK prepares men and women for careers in the restaurant industry with training on food preparation, restaurant operations, and transferable professional skills. The results are tangible: about 80% of PCK’s graduates leave the program with a job. In addition to launching individuals into new careers, PCK cooks 250,000 meals annually and distributes the food to local emergency kitchens.

WSII fellow Angela Chen spoke with Candace Matthews-Bass, Director of Personnel Resource Development and Training at Philabundance Community Kitchen, about how a double-bottom line social enterprise can create workforce impact in both the short- and long-term. Here are five lessons learned:

1. PCK’S programming is designed for collaboration and replication. 

In spite of its name, PCK far exceeds expectations of a typical “community kitchen.” The workforce training initiative not only creates new opportunities for its students, but also provides a creative solution to further Philabundance’s mission to address hunger in the community. PCK hopes that others in the area will join them in their mission.

Says Candace:

“I’m a big proponent for not just doing things just for the sake of doing them. When I see us continuing to replicate the same services over and over again, I think it’s a waste of money and a waste of time. It suggests that we’re not tapping into the resources that are available in the community already, or the people who are in the community already. So how can we do what makes sense?

PCK is a program that both relieves hunger now and ends hunger forever, producing food that feeds folks today, but also producing training and opportunities for employment that puts people in a position where they don’t have to be in the line in the first place anymore. Some of our donors still think we rescue food and give it back out, but our services are becoming more sophisticated and informed. We’re aiming to make a larger impact. We’re trying to end hunger, not just pacify it. We have rebranded and want people to understand our larger initiatives. Ideally, this model will take root and spread.”

2. An effective training program positions students for success in and out of the kitchen. 

PCK’s regimented training program has proven to be successful in building employees’ skills in a sustainable way. Over three rigorous months, students learn their way around all aspects of the food business, while also developing transferable personal traits and skills that are applicable in any industry.

“The first month is really trying to assess and see where the program participants belong and helping them understand the importance of accountability. If they struggle with that, then it will usually make it very difficult to continue in the program. The student day is from 7:45-3:30 every day, for 37 hours per week. It’s set up like that on purpose, because if you work a full-time job, that’s the number of hours you need to be alert, attentive, focused and giving your energy forward. Furthermore, the length of the program is equivalent to a 90-day probation period which is typical in most employment situations. The goal is to teach them to be consistent, proactive and hardworking.

The second phase is when we pour in all of the skills. They have five different areas of study: culinary classes, safe food handling, job readiness, life skills and math. We also teach them how to email and how to fill out online job applications. As much as it seems commonplace, there’s a whole population that is totally unfamiliar with that way of looking for jobs.  During the culinary training, students learn all facets of the kitchen, including pot sink, dish machine operation, overall sanitation, receiving and inventory. So they learn all the stuff that’s not so glamorous as well.

The last month is the “try-it”. We have events in-house, and the students will cater them and put their skills to practice with an audience, which usually consists of guests from the culinary world or food service industry. Students also do mock interviews with real employers and real HR personnel. They also go out on a two-week internship, which could be at a restaurant, a hospital, or campus dining. It’s really their opportunity to test the skills they’ve learned over the past 12 weeks – and all of the life skill lessons – into practice with a live employer.”

PCK staff

3. Relationships are critical for being able to measure impact down the line.  

Measuring the impact of workforce development programs requires follow-up post-graduation. PCK has learned that the stronger the relationship built with its students, the more receptive they will be to outreach and follow-up when the time comes.

“We found that if you expect to get numbers on the back end of the program, you have to have a relationship on the front end. Otherwise our alumni will think, ‘Why are you calling me? I don’t care about you guys anymore. I got what I needed, and now I’m gone.’

We actually do sincerely care, but if folks don’t think you care, then they don’t either. We’re able to get the economic and social information about how they’re doing after the program ends, and continue to provide support to them, because we put a lot of time into gaining their trust and into being a program of integrity from the beginning.”

4. Revenue generation, no matter how small, allows for decreased dependence on grants. 

Although PCK’s meal production and light catering doesn’t support the entire program cost, it still decreases financial reliance on donors and thus its umbrella organization, Philabundance.

“Within PCK, the [corporate or catering] contracts that we do support about 50-60% of the program. We call our catering a revenue generating project.

That’s significant, and protecting that amount is really important, because it makes us much, much less reliant on grants. The contracts cover almost all the meal production and our catering offsets our food expenses.”

5. When resources are limited, impact at scale is limited.

PCK has excess demand and proven results, but growth is limited by the space and equipment constraints of expansion.

“People are excited about our impact, but we are not able to maximize it due to space constraints, staff limitations, and the number of employer relationships we have for our students to be able to thrive in the job market.

The space constraints impact us the most. Our classroom holds 30 people. The maximum students I’ve had in this program at one time was 46. The need is much, much bigger than what we have the capacity to serve. Also, the job training program can cater for events periodically, but we want to have ongoing contracts and we can’t support that level of business in the space we have right now.

We see this huge, huge need of ex-offenders pouring out of prisons, and right now, the way the prison system is set up, for every 3 people that come out, 2 go back in. What would change that? Training, skills, housing and a path. The way to stop the cycle of incarceration is by investing in these people, but we don’t have the resources right now to do all that we want.”

ChenAAbout the author: Angela Chen, W’16, graduated from the Nursing School and Wharton, where she is concentrating in Health Care Management. She is from Vestal, NY and has been actively involved with her surrounding communities from a young age. At Wharton, she served as a research fellow with the Wharton Social Impact Initiative on the Impact Philadelphia team. In her free time, she enjoys playing piano and playing tennis.