By Sarah Underwood
On Dec. 4, One Acre Cafe in downtown Johnson City will celebrate its one-year anniversary with the graduation of its very first co-op participant, Amy Stout.
When Stout’s passion for the culinary arts started nearly six years ago, she never would have dreamed it would lead her to working in a commercial kitchen.
“I started to realize my love of cooking when my husband was deployed to Iraq, when our daughter was 2 months old,” Stout said. “I started making her baby food and I realized, I could actually do this.”
Stout’s enthusiasm didn’t end when her husband came home after a 16-month tour. Back at home in Gray, his company worked with Marines from over a 100-mile radius, which meant that not everyone was able to travel home during the week. Stout decided to provide them with home-cooked meals they weren’t getting at base.
“I started cooking for all these Marines, and I was pulling it off,” she said. “As a stay-at-home mom, you don’t get a lot of accolades, you lose your identity a little bit, but when I could produce a meal, I got positive feedback.”
For the past six years, this “positive feedback” has led Stout on what she calls a “culinary adventure.” It’s landed her in the co-op position at One Acre Cafe.
One Acre Cafe is a dine-in restaurant that runs on a donations-only basis. Diners can either pay the suggested donation—five, seven or nine dollars—or volunteer an hour of their time. One Acre’s co-op program (Co-op is short for “co-operation education”) is designed to provide participants with a three-month-long, paid, learning experience.
Stout’s been working in the job-training program since September. So far, she’s received training in the functions of a basic kitchen, controlling food costs, basic nutrition, food safety and sanitation, general cafe jobs and career planning and coaching.
As well as meeting regular volunteer hours at the cafe, Stout was also required to meet certain qualifications. According to Executive Director Jan Orchard, a co-op applicant must be an individual who is “unemployed and is supporting a family, has worked in low-skilled jobs with a wish to better themselves” and is “able to complete an employment application.”
But One Acre Cafe does not just accept any applicants who need a job. Other qualifications include those who “will be motivated to learn the skills needed to successfully perform in the service industry, have a minimum of two recommendations, will successfully pass a drug test and background check,” and those who are able to “discuss, in a very general sense, their future goals.”
The co-op program has always been a goal of Orchard’s, and the last qualifier – for an applicant to be able to express his or her future goals – is important to her.
“This program is not just because we feel sorry for you,” she said of applicants. “We want to see that you will take initiative and appreciate this opportunity. We think that’s very important.”
According to Orchard, the cafe has served more than 18,000 people, 3,000 of whom have worked for their meal instead of paying the suggested donation. But the cafe is doing more than just feeding the hungry.
“We’re conscious and intentional about building community,” Orchard said, “and building community is having a genuine interest in human beings. So we do what we can do inside of this cafe.”
Part of “doing what we can do” is training those who are unemployed and teaching them how to “be a member of society, how to seek employment and how to be employed.”
The co-op program is just one step in the cafe’s overarching plan to build and strengthen community in the downtown area.
“A lot of people are fearful of homeless people,” Orchard said, “but look what we’ve done. We’ve created a place where business people can come to eat side by side with people in the community. It’s what we’re supposed to be doing as human beings. There’s a lot of good going on here.”
Part of that “good going on” over at One Acre Cafe is securing Stout’s future and the futures of those who will go through the co-op program after she’s gone. She says she “feels confident going into a kitchen now, whereas before I wouldn’t have felt confident.”
And going into kitchens is exactly what Jan Orchard is having Stout do. So far, she’s met with several catering companies and restaurants in the area, including Main Street Catering and Firehouse Restaurant.
Stout says the best part isn’t necessarily that she’s learning how to cook. It’s that she’s learning how to accomplish her goals.
“I obviously didn’t go to culinary school, but I feel like this is my school,” she said, “and the fact that I’m getting paid to learn is such a gift. I get one-on-one time with Jan to work on my resume, and the program is teaching me how to achieve and dream big and learn how to get there.”