Web Exclusive | July 2011 | By Daniel P. Smith

Brands Offer Hires a Second Chance

Quick serves are extending their missions beyond their menus and helping the community in a new way.

A Goodwill Industries employee lends a hand at a culinary program in Georgia.
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On June 22, a burger joint in Huntington, Indiana, opened its doors with a traditional quick-service menu mimicking thousands of other independent eateries across the nation.

But this particular quick serve also had one very unique feature: its work crew was made up almost entirely of homeless men looking for a second chance at life.

Malta Burgers is a new venture opened by the Malta House, a nondenominational men’s homeless shelter that opened last September.

“We hope Malta Burgers can be a model for others and shows communities the positive solutions that are available for those who come together,” says Kellie Herber, executive director of Malta House.

As restaurants across the country seek to connect with their surrounding communities and tout their social responsibility, Malta Burgers stands an example of how restaurants can spark new possibilities for individuals and towns. And it’s not the only eatery taking action to support a community’s homeless population.

Last May, Pizza Fusion, a 16-unit organic pizza franchise headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, opened its first outlet in Denver. The restaurant has captured attention not just for its handmade, specialty pies, but because of its franchisee operator: the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

A Denver-based social service agency that serves 15,000 homeless men and women annually, the Coalition staffs the restaurant with homeless and formerly homeless Coalition clients picked from a series of interviews and case-worker recommendations.

The aim, Coalition reps say, is to provide employees marketable skills and real-life experiences to foster the transition from the restaurant to other hospitality jobs in the Denver area.

“You need to transform lives to affect real change. We’re using the restaurant to do just that.”

About two-dozen employees earn around $10 an hour at the Denver Pizza Fusion, and all net restaurant proceeds support a number of the Coalition’s other job-training programs. As a result, the restaurant embraces Pizza Fusion’s bold motto: “Saving the Earth One Pizza at a Time.”

“The issue of unemployment is something on everyone’s mind, and it’s great to be able to work with such an upstanding organization and align our missions to work toward the greater good,” Pizza Fusion CEO Vaughan Lazar said in a release upon the restaurant’s opening.

Goodwill Industries, a national organization that seeks to heighten individuals’ quality of life through the power of work, views the restaurant industry as a valuable partner in its quest to rebuild lives. The social service agency has long sought to align itself with both national and regional restaurant operations.

Goodwill’s Detroit office operates a Ben & Jerry’s outlet, while its regional office in north-central Wisconsin runs two Harmony Café restaurants. A hospitality training program run by the Grand Rapids, Michigan, Goodwill office gives 25 individuals each year the skills and experiences, including ServSafe certification, to obtain hospitality positions.

“Because there’s a supply of foodservice positions, Goodwill provides the job training so employers and employees can both win,” says Jill Wallace, spokeswoman for Goodwill’s Grand Rapids office.

Restaurants that hire from the organization’s Grand Rapids hospitality program, Wallace says, gain a worker vetted by Goodwill and with a minimum of one month working experience.

“We’ve been able to build relationships with local restaurants who know we’re sending them good candidates,” Wallace says.

The Grand Rapids office also runs a quick-service deli at the local bus depot. Crosstown Station not only generates a profit that feeds the office’s mission, Wallace says, but helps clients gain the real-world training that can translate into future employment.

It’s a similar spirit and mission at Malta Burgers, which came about more by whim than any strategic plan.

One of the organization’s founding members, local realtor Teresa Kaylor, drove by a shuttered fast food restaurant and wondered aloud if Malta House could purchase the property and launch a quick-service eatery to help fund its mission. A month later, Malta House had the building and a vision.

After visiting dozens of established quick-service restaurants, the organization’s leaders arrived at the Malta Burgers concept, a no-frills eatery serving all-American food at an affordable price. The operation is staffed by one paid employee, local volunteers, and workers from Malta’s discipleship program, a one-year life turnaround program.

Herber says the immediate response to Malta Burgers has been 99 percent positive.

“We’re not just serving food, but changing lives,” she says. “Programs work to a certain point, but you need to transform lives to affect real change. We’re using the restaurant to do just that.”