According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, more than 500,000 Americans endure homelessness each night, while countless thousands more are impoverished.

Many of these citizens live near a quick-serve concept, giving restaurateurs an opportunity to team up with nonprofits to help the less fortunate jumpstart a career in foodservice. The industry is using everything from franchisee incentives to culinary and life-skills training to transform lives and create careers for those who’ve fallen on hard times.

Since quick-serve restaurants populate even the most disadvantaged communities, incentivizing franchisees to partner with social agencies provides a potent recipe for supporting entire neighborhoods. Don Fertman, chief development officer for Subway, says his company decided to waive its $15,000 franchise fee for two years for franchisees who help the impoverished through a public service or government facility venue.

Fertman’s decision stemmed from his appearance on the CBS television show “Undercover Boss.” During filming, he met two clergymen: Duane Thomas of Niagara Falls, New York, and Darius Pridgen of Buffalo, New York. Pridgen had opened a church-based Subway in 2003, partly to provide job training for disadvantaged residents. Thomas managed another nearby Subway shop.

“They were giving people the opportunity to learn how to do job interviews, how to meet the public, how to interact with the public, and it was really moving to me,” Fertman says.

But franchisee incentives like Subway’s only go so far. While franchisors can use incentives to lure critical capital into poor neighborhoods, imparting job skills through training programs is a whole other matter, one that is an essential ingredient in revitalizing a community.

That’s where foodservice training charities can help, says Wendi Copeland, vice president of mission advancement for Goodwill Industries International in Rockville, Maryland. The Goodwill program’s goal is to connect trainees with jobs that will support families and build the local economy. As they gain skills and navigate their careers, these individuals prepare “not just for the job today, but for the career tomorrow,” Copeland says.

The nonprofit provides an array of training programs, combining classroom instruction with earn-and-learn opportunities, Copeland says. These may involve cooking in a military installation, operating a Goodwill Café, or working in catering operations.

Proving oneself in an entry-level job is the beginning to building a personal career brand, Copeland says. “We help people get their foot in the door to start earning a paycheck to establish themselves.”

However, not everyone believes foodservice provides the best career path for the less fortunate. David Carleton is vice president of FareStart and founder and director of Catalyst Kitchens, a Seattle-based culinary job training and placement program. He says foodservice experience instills teamwork, grooms interpersonal skills, and is “an amazing environment for applied learning of technical and soft skills,” but says low pay and a lack of benefits in quick-serve operations pose obstacles.

“These are folks that, typically, the average age is in the 30s,” he says. “You can’t get them on a tangible path and then put them in a job where they go backward.”

Carleton says Catalyst Kitchens has better success in helping the homeless over the longer term through placing culinary trainees in casual-dining venues or catering operations.

While some critics see quick-serve jobs as a less viable path to escaping poverty, offering a range of supportive services—including help with housing and access to social services—helps trainees circumvent those obstacles, says Margaret Haywood, director of workforce development for Inspiration Corporation. The nonprofit operates two restaurants in Chicago that serve as training venues for restaurant workers. The program’s graduation rate averages between 50 and 60 percent, with three-quarters of those completing the program landing a job, she says.

Haywood says training workers should involve a two-track approach: focusing on the technical aspects of cooking, while also learning how to work in a daylong, highly competitive environment. Students in the Inspiration Corporation program are warned not to let a chef’s critiques undermine morale.

“We tell people, before they even get into the program, that cooking is difficult. You have to have a hard shell,” she says, noting that chefs don’t give instructions “in a social-worker way.” However, a chef’s blunt critiques spur trainees to produce a quality meal, which is critical to the viability of the program, she says.

Working under a chef’s direction, trainees begin with the basics, gradually moving into more complex tasks and preparing all the food. Graduates are often placed in mid-range restaurant operations, with some going into quick-serve venues operated by Sodexo.

Quick serves that want to help the less fortunate with opportunities in foodservice don’t have to limit their efforts to the poor demographic. StepUp Ministry in Raleigh, North Carolina, lends a hand to another group of disadvantaged citizens: those with a criminal history.

Angela Coleman, employment manager for the nonprofit, says foodservice employers are often willing to give a job applicant with a troubled past a second chance.

“It’s better than just getting someone right off the street,” she says, adding that the employee receives charitable support during training. Coleman says that by working in tandem with StepUp Ministry, foodservice operators “know they’re going to get a good employee.”

Charitable Giving, Employee Management, Restaurant Operations, Story, Subway