Gracie Cafe program participant Peter, with manager Mike Ellert.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Gracie’s Cafe program participant Peter with manager Mike Ellert

The restaurant industry has always been an open door into the workforce for people with legal trouble in their pasts. Show up, do the dishes, and you’ve established a first foothold in the working world, no other questions asked. That’s the reason Saint Leonard’s Ministries, a 60-year-old residential program for recently released prisoners on the Near West Side, has long included food-service training among its programs for helping the formerly incarcerated learn the skills to make it in the world of work.

But in the last few years, what restaurants have been looking for in people coming from programs like Saint Leonard’s has changed. “Saint Leonard’s had been doing a culinary arts program, back of the house training—chef training, sous chef training, prep cooks, things like that,” says Mike Ellert. “But we found that a lot of the jobs were in front of house skills—cashiering, barista skills, sandwich making, pastry trays, greeting people. Customer service type things.”

The result is Gracie’s Cafe, a coffeehouse at 1517 W. Warren Boulevard near Ashland, which launched about nine months ago, but will have its official opening event on Thursday from 10:30 AM to noon. Ellert, a veteran of food-service companies such as Panera Bread and Bennigan’s who serves as the cafe’s manager, says the opening event is meant to mark not merely its existence, but the successful graduation of most of its first participants into jobs with companies such as Eataly, Pete’s Market, and the CTA. “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,” Ellert says.

Gracie’s Cafe—the name derives from the female side of the Saint Leonard’s residential program, Grace House—was launched to serve as the final step toward work for program participants, and its 90-day program is open only to those who have already successfully been through Saint Leonard’s program for combating recidivism and acquiring life skills. “We have a jobs coordinator who works with selected companies out there who are looking for people and they don’t mind that they have a record, especially if it’s just minor charges. Most of the people who come through our program have drug convictions or other minor things—we don’t have any violent felons. The jobs coordinator ensures that we’re targeting areas where somebody will actually talk to you and give you a chance, we’re not wasting your time.”

To date they’ve brought in 18 program participants, and Ellert says twelve who’ve completed it to date have gotten jobs in food service, with two more currently interviewing. The intent of the cafe is to produce revenue, but Ellert admits it’s not self-sustaining—”A typical coffeeshop like this would have two people working in it, plus a manager. We have six, and additional staff to help with their training.” The cafe was launched with a one-year grant from TIF funds for the redevelopment of the Near West Side, but is currently looking for ongoing funding.

None of this background is necessarily apparent, or should be, to a customer coming to Gracie’s for a cup of coffee and a pastry. The sunny cafe and patio could be a coffeehouse anywhere in town, WiFi included. The space is on the first floor of Harvest Commons, the former Viceroy Hotel, redeveloped in 2013 by the Heartland Alliance; the cafe overlooks a vegetable garden, which participants can help tend and from which Ellert buys produce for sandwiches and salads.

Ellert and Peter making coffee and espresso.

Support has come from other places as well, particularly in regards to sourcing the coffee and food. The coffee is from Intelligentsia, located a few blocks away, and they helped set up the espresso machine and launch the training program. With only a tiny kitchen on site, the food comes from a variety of sources—Inspiration Kitchen, which runs similar food-service programs, provides the soups and salads, pastries come daily from Bridgeport Bakery on the south side, and cookies and other baked goods come from the culinary arts program at Saint Leonard’s.

With time Ellert hopes to expand hours, services, and the level of engagement with the community. He plans to offer catering and delivery to Loop offices, with pastries and box lunches, and to stay open into the evening with events like live music, art openings and poetry slams. The hope is that it’ll help overcome their location opposite Union Park, which doesn’t draw a lot of foot traffic and can be tough to park around, and is only a short time removed from being an even less inviting neighborhood to grab a cup of coffee in.

“When you talk about opening a business, you’re looking for a great location,” says Ellert. “We didn’t have that luxury because our main focus was going to be the training program, and we needed to build a small business out of that. It takes a while, and we haven’t done a lot of business. But we get people from Union Park, we get a few commuters going by, and the social services agencies that we work with have all been great partners where we deliver box lunches and things to their events.”