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A&E >  Food

A kitchen on a mission

New Leaf Bakery Cafe helps women succeed through a unique job training program

By Kirsten Harrington Correspondent

There’s a new place in town to get your morning cuppa joe and muffin to go, but it’s not a ubiquitous national chain.

The New Leaf Bakery Cafe opened to the public on April 20 in the new Catholic Charities building at 12 E. Fifth Ave. Just like any other neighborhood coffee bar, New Leaf offers mochas, lattes, muffins and other goodies. But it offers so much more.

New Leaf is a program sponsored by Transitions, a Spokane nonprofit organization assisting women in need. It offers temporary housing programs, a drop-in day center called the Women’s Hearth, childcare and a social worker to help homeless and low-income women and their children get back on their feet.

In June 2008, Transitions launched New Leaf Bakery Cafe to provide job training for women in need. In 2006, Sheila Fitzgerald was hired by Transitions to help develop a “social purpose” business that would train women for jobs in the food service industry.

“I came on board to do a feasibility study. The area most aligned with our values, the best area for our women, was food service,” said Fitzgerald, director of the New Leaf Bakery Cafe training program. “Food service has a breadth of opportunities, from high-end chef to institutional kitchens,” she said, noting that the program would help the women sort out their strengths. To qualify for the program, women must be low income, and need assistance to get back into the workforce.

“They struggle with domestic violence, addictions – they have so many things pulling at them. We want to give them enough confidence to say ‘I can do this.’ We help them re-orient,” Fitzgerald said.

The income from New Leaf’s catering business and retail sales funds the program. Most of the women are referred by Career Path Services, a government-sponsored job assistance program. The training is free, and the women in the program receive a salary from Career Path Services. The hands-on program teaches clients marketable culinary skills, as well as valuable life skills to gain stability and financial independence.

In the kitchen

Transitions teamed with Catholic Charities to find kitchen space for the training program, and Catholic Charities designed its new building with retail kiosk space for the New Leaf Bakery Cafe. An offsite kitchen, currently at St. John’s Cathedral, acts as a classroom and production area for the catering orders and cafe menu items. The St. John’s arrangement is temporary, and work will begin this summer to refurbish a permanent kitchen.

On a recent day, a delicious smell wafted from the kitchen, where a group of women were baking whole wheat loaves and challah, a sweet Jewish bread.

“Would you like to try one?” offered Vira Melendez-Redman, chef instructor for the program. It tasted as good as it smelled.

Melendez-Redman learned her way around the kitchen at an early age. She was raised by her grandmother, who taught her how to cook on a woodstove. Food was an integral part of her upbringing, and she has a passion for teaching women how to cook and take pride in what they do. In food service, she tells her students, every job is essential, from dishwasher to executive chef.

Melendez-Redman teaches the women comprehensive kitchen skills, from basic hygiene to knife skills and bread baking. She takes them on field trips, quizzes them on spices, and teaches them to be dependable and organized.

“My job is to draw out their skills,” she said. “These are bright women with lots of potential. I look at what they do at catering events and what they produce and it brings me to tears.” To some of the women, she serves as a mentor and mother figure. Graduation day is bittersweet. “Have I taught them everything? Will they be OK?” she wonders.

The women in the program aren’t the only ones who benefit.

“These women teach me more. I am so lucky – this is not a job. It’s my calling. I’m very happy,” Melendez-Redman said.

Women’s Hearth

After the women finish in the kitchen for the day, they go back to the Women’s Hearth, a drop-in day center operated by Transitions. Here, the training continues in the form of discussions and workshops. They learn practical skills like how to make a meatloaf for dinner, and fun things like candymaking. They also have access to classes, including healthy relationships, stress management, computer skills, financial literacy and job search skills.

New Leaf Bakery Cafe

The kiosk just inside the Catholic Charities building serves Doma coffee, breakfast pastries, salads, sandwiches and cookies. The selection varies depending on what the women are cooking in the training kitchen. A recent offering included fresh fruit salad, pecan toffee bars, an Asian chicken salad with sesame vinaigrette, and challah bread fresh out of the oven.

The women have the opportunity to work in the kiosk if they wish, and manager Kristen Speller teaches “front of the house” skills, such as customer service, resolving complaints and handling money.

“It is tailored to each individual woman,” said Speller, who also teaches the women about nutrition and the importance of organic foods.

The kiosk is slowly developing a loyal following.

“We’re truly welcomed in this building,” Speller said. Due to restrictions on signs, the New Leaf Cafe’s logo is not visible from the outside of the building, but Speller is hoping that business will increase as the word gets out.

“The ultimate goal is to have our own building with a restaurant,” Speller said.

Food to go

Chilled garlic shrimp, spinach-feta phyllo purses, spicy Italian meatballs …sounds like something the Davenport Hotel might prepare for a gala event. Actually, it’s just a sample of the menu prepared by the women recently when they catered a church auction for 135 guests. “The women had to volunteer, since they aren’t paid on Saturdays,” said Melendez-Redman. But they loved it.

“That was my zone. I like to be around people and see that they like my food,” said one of the students.

Before the first women were accepted into the program, New Leaf had already secured a contract with the Boys and Girls Club of Spokane to provide 150 to 175 sack lunches daily for the eight-week summer program.

“We had a focus to work toward,” said New Leaf’s director Fitzgerald. The women in the program made more than 6,000 lunches that summer, and the catering business has continued to grow.

Fresh produce

“We started last year accessing community garden plots,” Fitzgerald said, explaining that the women made field trips to the garden to harvest produce. The extra produce went to the training kitchen for soups and salads. The long-term plan, Fitzgerald says, is to teach the women gardening. The waste from the kitchen is used in compost, which goes back into the garden.

“We want to create a cycle: grow food, prepare it in the kitchen, serve it, and recycle the waste,” she said.

Changed lives

“I am definitely not the same now. I’ve grown and matured,” said Tabitha Allen, who has been in the training program for several months. “It’s me now, who I’ve become. It took a lot, but it’s wonderful.” She describes herself as more organized, efficient and confident, in the kitchen and at home. As a single mom on welfare, Allen saw a leaflet for the New Leaf job training program at the welfare office, and knew it was what she wanted to do. After she graduates from the program this summer, she hopes to pursue a career as a dietary aide in the Air National Guard.

Shannon Sharp, a single mother of three, likes the support she gets from the program.

“A lot of us come from a hard background. It’s nice to be able to make friends and have support even outside the kitchen,” she said.

For additional practice, Sharp often replicates what she learns in the kitchen at home for her kids, and friends are now asking her to cook for them.

Sharp hopes to go to Spokane Community College’s baking program in the fall.

“Shannon is a wonderful baker. She has a natural ability and is very gifted. She can learn something one day and make it perfectly on her own the next day,” Melendez-Redman said.

Melendez-Redman shared the following recipes which the students prepare for the cafe and catering events.

Cranberry Bread

1 egg

2 egg whites

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

½ cup oil

½ cup applesauce

2 cups fresh cranberries

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon baking soda

3 teaspoons cinnamon

1 cup walnuts or pecans, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Grease and flour two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Mix ingredients in order listed in large bowl. Pour batter in pans. Bake for one hour. Test for doneness by sticking a toothpick into loaf. If it comes out clean, loaf is done.

Variation: Fresh cranberries make this bread very tart. In place of cranberries you may use 2 cups grated zucchini, 2 cups canned pumpkin or 2 cups mashed bananas.

Yield: 2 loaves, 12 servings per loaf.

Rainbow Pasta Salad

1 16-ounce bag rotini tricolor pasta

4-5 green onions, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 yellow bell pepper, diced

1 large tomato, diced

1 ½ cups frozen peas

1 5 ¾ ounce can whole olives, drained and each olive cut in half

1 cup fresh parmesan cheese, shredded

1 cup low-calorie Italian dressing

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain well and cool. Place pasta in large bowl. Add vegetables and cheese. Add dressing and toss. Chill about one hour before serving.

Yield: 12 servings

Vegetable Beef Soup

1 pound beef stew meat, cut in bite-sized pieces

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup diced celery

1 large potato, diced (optional)

½ onion, diced

1 cup yellow squash, diced

1 cup zucchini, diced

2 large garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons dried rosemary

1 tablespoon dried basil

3 beef bouillon cubes

1 cup whole canned tomatoes

12 cups cold water

1 8-ounce package bow tie pasta

Brown meat in large stock pot. Add carrots, celery, potato, onion and cook until tender but firm. Add remaining ingredients except pasta. Bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook until tender. Reduce heat to medium. Simmer about 30 minutes.

Yield: 10 servings.

Kirsten Harrington can be reached at or go to her Web site

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