After two weeks of intensive training – during her summer break, no less – Charlotte Harris can now tell you what it means to be a great waitress. She knows that you don’t put raw meat on a rack above other foods in the fridge. She knows the importance of sanitizing restaurant counters every chance you get, even more so than usual during a pandemic.
And, like any alumni of Fresh Soul’s life-skills job training program, she can burst forth with the restaurant’s mission statement at the drop of a hat.
“We exist to feed the souls of Spokane beyond our bomb Southern soul-filled cuisine,” Harris, 17, recited. “We are Fresh Soul.”
Harris and five other Spokane youths, ages 14 to 17, make up the current class of trainees in the job skills program at Fresh Soul, a soul food restaurant in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood. The restaurant has been closed down since the end of March, but the program’s founder, Michael Brown, hasn’t stopped working towards his mission.
Typically, Mr. Brown – as his students and employees affectionately refer to him – is up at 5 a.m., prepping food for the day’s customers. But since the shutdown, there haven’t been giant batches of seafood gumbo and mac and cheese to start in the mornings.
Though Fresh Soul could have stayed open doing takeout and delivery only during the statewide stay-home order, Brown said he chose to shut it down to save expenses and ensure the program stayed fully funded into the future.
“A lot of restaurants in Spokane aren’t going to reopen at all,” Brown said. “We’ve weathered the storm because we’ve been blessed by the Lord, our foundation in Christ.”
Fresh Soul is a branch of Brown’s ministry, Spokane Eastside Reunion Association. The nonprofit also runs a summer youth basketball camp and a recreation center next door to the restaurant on East 5th Avenue. The restaurant helps fund the ministry’s work, but more important, Brown said, it’s “a restaurant with a mission.”
Students in the association’s training program spend four weeks in the classroom learning the basics of working in a restaurant, then another 12 weeks hands-on waiting tables and working in the kitchen. The program was put on hold once the stay-home order came down, but trainees were ready to get started as soon as they got the go-ahead.
During those 12 weeks, the students learn how to manage their paychecks, open a savings account and plan for the future. At the very end, they receive a certificate of completion and the promise of a good reference from Brown wherever they may take their skills next.
“We’re changing lives here,” said Tracy Everano, Fresh Soul’s head server and instructor for the skills program. “We want to give these kids a hope and a future.”
Brown was born and raised in East Spokane. As a successful Black man, he said feels called to serve as a positive role model for the community’s youth. But he emphasized that the program isn’t “a Michael thing or a SERA thing, it’s a God thing.”
While the restaurant was shut down, he spent his time seeking out donations and support from the community. He and Everano also spent time tweaking the training program’s curriculum, shortening the classroom period from four weeks to two so the students would be ready to help when the restaurant reopened.
The current class of trainees may have had less time than usual, but on the last day of their classroom training, the students are excited to show what they’ve learned from Brown and Everano. The experience has brought growth beyond just job skills, they said.
Kyrie Tiffany, 15, had been homeless and looking for a way to scrape together some money. She asked her school counselor about jobs that would hire workers under 16, but had no luck. Then, as she left the office, she saw a flyer for Fresh Soul’s training program. Since joining, she’s found Everano’s emphasis on teamwork helpful to her growth.
“I’m working on working with people better,” Tiffany said. “I’m super independent and I don’t usually talk to people, and when I do, it’s not very nice. I’ve learned to do that better here.”
Gabe Aberra said he was looking forward to holding the certificate of completion in his hands and using it to go further. At 15, he figured it was about time to get a job and start saving. Plus, his sister bakes a lot at home, and his mom is “insane” about keeping the kitchen clean. He’ll be able to help more with both once he finishes the program.
“Mr. Brown always makes a point that his restaurant is the cleanest in Spokane, even before COVID,” Aberra said. “So I know I’ll be doing a lot of that here.”
The class is full of diverse backgrounds and experiences, something Brown said made his program especially powerful right now. The students had barely talked to each other when they started the program; now, they never stop, as one student joked.
“In the time we’re dealing with right now, it’s such a huge example of how to come together and stay together to make progress,” Brown said.
At the end of the class, Brown led his students in prayer, thanking God for the first weeks of the program and asking to become better in the next 12 weeks.
With job opportunities more chaotic than ever, Brown said his training program fits “right at the tip-top” of making sure the community is prepared to do well for themselves. Though the program is geared toward food service, Brown and Everano both said the skills they teach will help their students in any career they enter. And if they do choose to stay in the restaurant business, Brown said they’ll be some of the best servers around.
Plus, Brown says, the comfort his food offers is needed now more than ever.
“We’re sowing hope and feeding communities,” Brown said. “What’s better than that? We can’t guarantee the food is always 100% perfect, but I can tell you it’s 110% full of love.”
One big blessing during the shutdown was continued donations pouring in from SERA’s usual sponsors, Brown said. Local businesses and charities usually contribute enough to allow SERA to provide one scholarship for their basketball camp to each elementary and middle school in Spokane, and that didn’t stop during the shutdown. Small individual donors have also helped keep the mission going during the pandemic, even without the option of getting a home-cooked meal in return.
In the slow weeks right before the stay-home order, Everano said regular customers made sure to stuff extra dollars into the jug on the counter, left $100 tips and made donations online even when they were too sick to eat. Brown pulled out a handwritten letter thanking him for what he does for the community. The letter’s author now makes a donation every single month, Brown said.
Brown claims there’s nothing like Fresh Soul anywhere else in the world. He even offers a reward to the trainees if they find another program like it. The closest they ever came to finding one was in New Orleans, but Brown flew there himself to check it out and maintains that his is still unique.
The restaurant will reopen July 8. Everano expects the first few weeks to be “absolutely slammed,” so she’s thankful for the extra help the new trainees will provide.
Someday, she’s sure Fresh Soul will be a “novelty” – when a couple from Australia made a trip to visit the restaurant last year, Everano was convinced that soon they’d be finding supporters for their mission across the world.
Brown said when they reopen their doors, he and the trainees will provide the same authentic soul food customers have grown to love, just at 50% capacity.
“People come here and fall in love,” Brown said. “We don’t want you to be a one and done – we want you to come back and know your money is going back into your community. You come for the food, you come back for the community.”
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