Mar 13, 2024 - Food and Drink

Cafe Reconcile gets a $4M boost from MacKenzie Scott

In a side-by-side pair of photos, a young person points to a poster on the wall while wearing a chef's apron, and on the right, a pair of young people smile while working together on a computer.

Cafe Reconcile provides young New Orleanians with life and hospitality skills. Photos: Courtesy of Cafe Reconcile

A New Orleans nonprofit that provides young people with hospitality and life skills training recently got a $4 million donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

Why it matters: It means for the first time in its nearly 25-year history, Cafe Reconcile finally has a savings account.

  • "Our program is about stability and building a space of trust and care so young people can navigate who they're trying to be and how they're trying to show up in the world," says Cafe Reconcile CEO Kheri Billy. "It only happens because the community of New Orleans believes in us."

The big picture: Cafe Reconcile is one of about 20 New Orleans organizations that Scott has given funding to in recent years.

Flashback: Cafe Reconcile got its start back in 1996 when Rev. Harry Tompson, Craig Cuccia and Tim Falcon acquired the five-story Central City building that still houses the nonprofit today.

  • It took another four years before programming began, but since then, a steady stream of young New Orleanians ages 16 to 24 have cycled through Cafe Reconcile.
  • During their time there, the interns work their way through tiers of programming that gives them on-the-job training inside the Cafe Reconcile restaurant while also learning life skills to navigate whatever they decide comes next, whether that's finishing a GED, heading to college or finding a job.

By the numbers: In 2023, Cafe Reconcile worked with 127 students.

  • Each one signs up for a 16-month program, which includes 14 weeks in the restaurant working alongside trainer advocates under chef Martha Wiggins.
  • The interns receive stipends during their rotation through the restaurant, as well as a $500 stipend when they graduate.
An orange table top is filled with white plates and bowls filled with Creole soul food staples, like fried fish, potatoes, green beans and fried catfish.
Under chef Martha Wiggins, Cafe Reconcile's restaurant has grown its reputation as a place for great food while supporting a community cause. Photo: Courtesy of Cafe Reconcile

"The restaurant's really a tool for practicing the life skills they're learning here, so they're learning coping mechanisms to deal with whatever might be difficult for them," Wiggins tells Axios New Orleans.

  • "It's also helping to remove barriers for them. That may be housing, child care, health, mental health, but they're learning these tools, and then they can use them and practice them in real time in a real restaurant."

Yes, but: Under Wiggins, the restaurant, which helps fund the nonprofit's work, has still managed to develop a reputation for culinary excellence while serving as a training ground for the interns.

  • Last October, the New York Times named it one of the best 25 restaurants in New Orleans.
  • Getting there, she says, has meant sharing an "understanding that even though the food is simple or casual doesn't mean we'll take it any less seriously when it comes to our processes, the ingredients we use and how we prepare it."
  • At the time Cafe Reconcile recruited her for the role, Wiggins says, she was looking for her next leadership position but didn't quite realize how much she'd enjoy working with young people.
  • "It's the hardest job I've ever had, but it's the best thing I've ever been a part of," she says.

What's next: For now, there are no grand plans for the $4 million gift beyond letting it sit in a savings account as the Cafe Reconcile team looks for long-term ways to deepen programming for the students.

  • "It's a one-time gift," Billy says. "It doesn't happen again, so we want to make sure we build some legs around that gift."
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