Comeback Cafe serves up tasty dishes and second chances

The Comeback Café, a pioneering establishment run by five women trained in the culinary arts, made its triumphant return Aug. 9 at the Virgil E. Brown Neighborhood Family Service Center, serving up burgers, sandwiches, salads, wings, and gourmet entrees like shrimp and grits to hungry state employees.

The Comeback Café, run by women incarcerated at the Northeast Reintegration Center on East 30th Street who are on the road to a new start, serves breakfast and lunch to 600 Cuyahoga County employees in a secure building at 1641 Payne Ave.

The café opened on the fifth-floor of the county-run building in March 2018 and then moved scaled-down operations to a basement conference room when a leaky roof hampered operations. It marks a new chance for the women who hope to get a jump start on new careers—and make a livable wage—before they are released from prison.

The cafe is part of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s Chopping for Change program, which, in partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry, provides inmates with violence and trauma therapy followed by a complete culinary education so they are ready to enter the workforce when released.

“They come here and go through the whole program, which starts with therapeutic [sessions] and runs through culinary training,” says Ian Marks, Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s vice president of workforce development. “They work in our Central Kitchen, which provides 1,200 to 1,700 meals to our homeless shelters, and we partner with Millennia Hospitality Group’s Marble Room Steaks and Raw Bar and Il Venetian in Key Tower and other regional places like Lunch Owl.”

They help with job placement around the rest of Ohio as well, and program participants also do corporate catering and host food stations at local events like Taste of the Browns and Harvest for Hunger, Marks says.

The first quarter of the culinary training involves safety and sanitary procedures and job readiness training; the second quarter brings the trainees to Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s Central Kitchen, a from-scratch kitchen that sources all of its food from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank; and the next quarter involves hands-on training at the Comeback Café. The last step is job placement upon release.

Anna Parham, who is serving a three-year sentence for possession and will soon be released, says she is embracing the program full force.

“I’ve been in the program for two years, I graduated, now I’m in the workforce experience part of the program and I’m very grateful,” she says. “Pretty soon, when I leave here in about five months, I’ll be able to get a job where I can be in charge of people. And hopefully I can work around teenagers and guide them as they move toward their future.”

The Chopping for Change program is accredited by the Ohio State Board of Career Colleges and Schools and the national Council on Occupational Education. Graduates get a certificate upon completion of the program, but Marks says they are working on also awarding associate degrees by the end of next year.

To participate in Chopping for Change, the women must be within nine months of their release date. Since Chopping for Change started in 2016, 150 women have participated, Marks says, and Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry has seen a 90% graduation rate, with 85% to 90% job placement upon release, and only a 2.67% recidivism rate.

Some employees at the Virgil E. Brown Building were apprehensive of the Comeback Cafe at first, Marks says, but now they look forward to seeing the café employees and enjoying their daily specials—especially the wings.

County and state representatives, Northeast Reintegration Center warden Charmaine Bracy, and District 14 State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney were on hand to celebrate the grand reopening to the Comeback Café.

The café employees were emotional about the second change they are getting. Parham is one such worker.

A lot of us are incarcerated because of the mistakes we made, but we are not our mistakes,” she says. “LMM allows us to change and get a better skill set that we haven’t used before to make it so that when we get out, we can get better jobs, to have better behavior, and to be outstanding leaders once we leave the program.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.