From Shelters to Startups: CHEFS Program Helps Homeless by Cooking for Tech Companies

| July 11, 2014 | 1 Comment
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CHEFS student Safia Bubakar serves a meal to Zendesk employees. Photo: Angela Johnston

CHEFS student Safia Bubakar serves a meal to Zendesk employees. Photo: Angela Johnston

On a Monday afternoon at tech company Yammer’s headquarters on Market Street, engineers and programmers take a break from their desks, or the pinball machines and air hockey tables in the corner, and line up for snacks in the kitchen. They fill their plates with roast beef sliders with arugula, horseradish sauce and Parmesan cheese; sausage and leek quiches; and miniature blueberry cream cheese tarts. These bites aren’t prepared by a resident chef (Yammer doesn’t have one), instead they are created and served by homeless culinary students in transition, hoping for a shot in the food industry.

Yammer employees line up to get snacks. Photo: Angela Johnston

Yammer employees line up to get snacks. Photo: Angela Johnston

The students are part of a six month, three-phase program called CHEFS, or Conquering Homelessness through Employment in Food Services, operated by Episcopal Community Services. They learn everything from basic sanitation and safety in the kitchen, to knife skills, nutrition, and how to make different stocks and sauces. They also cater for various businesses around the city like Yammer, who uses CHEFS about once a month.

Safia Bubakar preps a catered lunch for Zendesk. Credit: Angela Johnston

Safia Bubakar preps a catered lunch for Zendesk. Credit: Angela Johnston

“It’s an opportunity I never thought I’d get,” says Safia Bubakar, who found out about CHEFS from the shelter she was staying in. Today, Bubakar made caramelized onion, mushroom, and brie crostinis for Yammer employees.

When I visited Zendesk for their CHEFS catered lunch, Bubakar was there, serving a long line of employees barbeque chicken, veggie chili, and rice pilaf. “I knew how to cook but I didn’t know why things turned out they way they do or why sauces break.” She tells me she wants to open an Asian fusion restaurant in San Francisco someday.

CHEFS instructor Mike Sullivan observes Safia Bubakar. Credit Angela Johnston

CHEFS instructor Mike Sullivan observes Safia Bubakar. Credit Angela Johnston

At the end of the program, students get internships at well-known restaurants around the Bay Area like Nopa, Mission Pie, Boulevard, Kokkari and Zut. Many of them even secure jobs there after graduating. More than 75% of students graduate with steady employment and a place to live. The program is now in its 17th year and has had over 50 graduating classes.

More recently, CHEFS has begun to cater meals for tech companies that have moved into the mid-market and Tenderloin neighborhoods after receiving big tax incentives from the city. In order to receive a payroll tax cut, companies need to form community benefit agreements, or CBAs, contracts with the city that show how they’ll contribute to their new neighborhood.

Software company Zendesk was the first to add CHEFS to their CBA back in 2011. Zoosk, Zynga and Yammer followed. According to their annual community benefit agreements report, last year Zendesk spent just under $100,000 in donations and hiring local businesses. $3,500 of that went to CHEFS.

Homeless San Franciscans serving tech workers lunch is an interesting juxtaposition. Critics of the mid-market tech revitalization argue that it’s the the tech companies that are driving up rent and contributing to even more homelessness. But CHEFS culinary training manager Al Leddy says this is an effective way to bridge the gap between rich companies moving into poor neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, and the existing residents, many of whom are in shelters, transitional housing, or living on the street.

Al Leddy explains the snacks his CHEFS students made for Yammer employees. Credit: Angela Johnston

Al Leddy explains the snacks his CHEFS students made for Yammer employees. Credit: Angela Johnston

“It’s definitely working,” Leddy says. “The students get to come in, they get to meet people that work in high tech, and most importantly they’re treated with respect, which goes a long way for them.” It’s extremely important, he says, to create this initial connection.

“The food is just outstanding,” says Cristina Akimoff, the community liaison in charge of maintaining Yammer’s relationship with the neighborhood and nonprofits like CHEFS.

Akimoff says she would like to have CHEFS come in more consistently; weekly or twice a month, rather than once a month for an event. Part of that would involve restructuring Yammer’s community benefit agreement.

“I’d really like to narrow it down so that we’re not stretched so thin, so we can really hone in on two or three really great organizations like CHEFS and make a big impact there instead of tiny impacts in a bunch of different places,” Akimoff says. This has been a common critique of the mid-market community benefits agreements – parachuting into a nonprofit for a day, serving breakfast, or reading to kids, and then moving on to the next one.

A Yammer employee adds some stuffed mushrooms to her plate. Credit: Angela Johnston

A Yammer employee adds some stuffed mushrooms to her plate. Credit: Angela Johnston

With CHEFS, in some cases, you can already see a small impact. Mobile gaming company Zynga has hired a few homeless CHEFS graduates to work in the startup’s massive kitchen, assisting their in-house butcher, baker, and brewer. A few weeks ago, the current class took a field trip to Zynga’s kitchen to hear from the former CHEFS students who now work there.

But for the people who actually live, and cook breakfast, lunch and dinner in the mid-market and Tenderloin neighborhoods, a nutritious, and filling meal is still difficult to come by. There isn’t a full service grocery store in the Tenderloin. The district has the city’s highest concentration of convenience stores — places more likely to sell potato chips and alcohol than apples and whole wheat bread. And according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the ratio of unhealthy to healthy food retailers here is 97% to 3%.

Although some tech companies have vowed to help fix this food desert problem in their new neighborhoods, data shows that most nonprofit programs are unable to sufficiently meet the current food and nutrition needs of the city and the Tenderloin. A 2012 study conducted by Stanford and the San Francisco Food Bank estimates that there were over 63 million “missing” meals, or unmet food need, in San Francisco in 2010.

“We’re just one ripple in the giant pond. We are very clear that we aren’t here to be heroes. We aren’t here to have the big solution that answers everything. We just want to be the person that helps the person in front of us and show people that we value the talent that they are literally bringing to our table,” says Tiffany Apczynski, a community liaison with Zendesk and the first person to bring CHEFS to a tech company kitchen.

Safia Bubakar serves a meal to an employee at Zendesk. Credit: Angela Johnston

Safia Bubakar serves a meal to an employee at Zendesk. Credit: Angela Johnston

Back at Yammer, Victoria (who did not want to give her last name), a student halfway through the program, lays down the final tray of stuffed mushrooms on the stainless steel counters. She tells me when she graduates from CHEFS she’d much rather cook for a startup than a restaurant because they pay better. The program has managed to give her and other people in transition more opportunities to get out of shelters and out of poverty, but there’s still bigger issues created by the tech boom, she says.

“If we could get more affordable housing so that the people who become chefs could afford housing in the city they work in, now that would be solving something.”

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About the Author ()

Angela Johnston is an independent radio reporter and producer who recently moved back home to the Bay Area after spending the past six years on the east coast of Canada. She has a Master’s Degree in broadcast journalism and is currently making radio stories for KALW's daily news magazine, Crosscurrents. When she's not writing and reporting, she's surfing surf small waves on her longboard or perfecting her paella recipe.
  • nic pollock

    Great piece! Well done Angela