When her beloved brother-in-law, Curt, passed away too young, Susan reevaluated her life, got involved with restorative justice, and opened Curt’s Café, with the mission to help at-risk, underserved young adults coming out of the prison system. Three years later, she opened a second location to help teen mothers as well.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born in Florida but our mom moved us to Deerfield, Illinois when my father drowned in a tragic scuba diving accident. I was seven years old, I had two sisters and two brothers, and Mom was pregnant with our youngest sister. When I was 25, I met a young man who came here from Peru and, since he had little family here, we brought him into our family. So we are a family of seven kids and an amazing mother.
We were not wealthy so we all began working at a young age. I started waitressing when I was 13 at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park. I quickly learned that I was better at working at a job than I was at fitting in or excelling at school—so I always gravitated to work.
During the gas shortage of 1973, I took at job at our local Mr. Adams Restaurant to avoid the high cost of gas. When I graduated high school, I moved to Florida to live with my two older sisters and there I worked the midnight to 7:00 am shift at Mr. Donuts, and then at the Lanai Restaurant in Sarasota. These different food service operations all taught me one thing: If you work hard and smart, you will move forward.
Educationally, I had struggled even getting through high school. I just wasn’t academic. So rather than going full time to college, I took courses in psychology, sociology, aikido, piano, guitar and finally went to secretarial school (yes, there was such a thing) and got a certificate in 1979, which I was happy with.
I finally moved back to Chicago and started to work for Lettuce Entertain You as a waitress at RJ Grunts in Glenview, finally moving to the Pump Room in Chicago as the Catering Director. It was a stretch because I had absolutely no skill set in Catering and they also had never catered, but we learned together.
When I was at the Pump Room, we kept getting calls to do catering outside of the Pump Room, at places like The Irish Embassy, at wedding showers, and such. Because Lettuce Entertain You did not do outside catering, I started a “pretend” catering company with a friend. We weren’t licensed, we didn’t have an LLC or anything formal, and we actually did our first catering event for The Irish Embassy—because we couldn’t afford uniforms, I sewed Kelly green bow ties and cummerbunds for us to wear! We then started to do other events for different organizations in Chicago. My dream of owning my own future started to grow.
Finally in 1983, when I was 25, my sister, Nancy Sharp, and her husband, Curt Sharp, joined me and we opened an S-Corp, Food For Thought Catering. We rented a space and were ready to show the world what catering really was about (or so we thought). We all worked at other jobs while we were growing the business; after three years, we finally had our footing and began to pay ourselves and rely on the business for our only income.
In 1986, I married my husband Tom, who was a Chef at a restaurant in Lake Forest called Sinclairs and he quickly joined Food For Thought as our corporate chef. Two years later, our son Trevor came along and in three years after that, Anna Mae was born. So I always say we birthed a company and two children in just 8 years! Nancy and Curt had two kids also and we all lived in a 2-flat together in South Evanston. We worked hard but played hard and had a wonderful life. We were fortunate enough to all move to North Evanston in 2000 (separate houses but only six blocks apart) and send our kids to Evanston Township High School. We are still in the same house but Trevor is in San Francisco finishing up his Masters Degree in Sustainable Peace through Sports Management and Anna Mae is in Boston working at a non-profit focused on Social Innovation and Social Impact.When Curt, my business partner and brother-in-law, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014, at the young age of 53, I found myself thinking too much, and I was always sad. Curt was the kind of guy everyone loved. He knew everyone in the room before he left and he genuinely cared about each and every one of them. When I researched what the name “Curt” meant it said “bold, courteous, polite and wise counselor” and that actually describes him perfectly!
I went down to Oakton Community College and signed up for the two classes available during lunch—it helped keep my mind off Curt’s illness and avoid the looks I got at work from coworkers who felt sorry for me—and I fell in love with learning as an adult.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
When Curt died in 2014, I took time off work to figure out what my life, at age 46, was about. Watching someone process end-of-life issues makes you do some deep digging about what your life is worth. I had always wanted a college degree and I was already on that path, so I just continued to keep moving that goal forward – many days blindly just surviving the grief of Curt’s death. I ended up getting my Associates Degree at Oakton and then getting my Bachelor’s at DePaul University in Social Justice. I was 51 when I graduated from DePaul.
Some days, school was the only thing that helped me get through the grief because it’s hard to learn and take tests when you haven’t been in school for 30 years. When I decided to go for my BA, I transferred to DePaul and took a class, by accident actually, that changed my life—but at the time I didn’t know how it was going to change my life. The class, Restorative Justice, opened me up to the injustices going on in our society involving underserved youth. Although we were poor growing up, we had a tremendous amount of love and support. I realized that was missing from many young people’s lives and I started to feel the injustices around me. I had no intention of moving that knowledge to action; I was going to donate or volunteer but not change my life around it.
But one day, I sat in a peace circle and heard a story from three young men who were going to be jailed for a childhood decision and I started writing a business plan to try to help them. Eight months later, I was sitting in a gutted café telling the workmen how to build out a restaurant and trying to find volunteers to help me open Curt’s Café—a concept I made up in my living room—with a business plan that made little sense to a businesswoman like myself. The P&L (Profit and Loss) was in the red and the mission had not been tried or proven. But I never questioned it. I just moved forward like I had in so many other things in my life and didn’t really think of it as a life-changing move. Just something needed to be done and I thought I could do it.
What is your next act?
I am the founder of Curt’s Café, which I opened in 2012, at the age of 54, in Evanston, Illinois; it’s a working café that trains at-risk, underserved, young adults, primarily those coming out of prison or with high judicial contact. In April of 2015, we opened our second café, also in Evanston, to serve teen mothers and at-risk underserved girls with the same mission. We are actually PS It’s Social, doing business as Curt’s Café, a non-profit 501©3 organization—designed to grow and expand into other areas that could use our programming.
We have had about 150 students come through the program and most keep coming back for further needs, mentoring, hugs, and love so we are busy. That and serving coffee and scones to the public makes for a full life. I designed our program after meeting with youths and understanding what their needs were and what they wanted in order to move their lives forward. We address what they want by giving them a purpose-driven workforce program. They train in job skills for six hours a day while running a coffee shop/café, which is supported by community members and neighbors.
We address their individual needs by having a full time social worker on staff and also by giving them support on intellectual and life skills for two hours every day. We have tutors come in to help them get their GED or High School Diplomas; we have mentors in all the time; we teach anger management, financial literacy, and relationship building.
Our goals are two-fold. For our young men (we work only with young adults 15 to 24 years old), our first goal is to keep them from returning to prison, our second goal is to help them get jobs, and then we help them keep those jobs by making sure they are in secure housing, have transportation, and are getting the social services they require. For our young women (same ages, but primarily teen mothers) we work to get them jobs and to help them secure daycare, safe housing, and support services as they navigate raising children, when many of them are children themselves.
To date (almost four years), we only have two young men who have returned to prison, which is a 2% recidivism rate. The national statistic for young men is 86% recidivism rate after just three years of their release. To put it another way, we have a 98% success rate, as opposed to the national average 14% success rate. We also have 80% of our students in jobs and over 50% have received their GED or High School Diplomas. Our young women’s program has only been open for one year and the ladies from our first two cohorts are still in their jobs. The ladies that trained in the summer all returned to high school and are still coming to the café on weekends to work or just visit.
Curt’s Café is run now by amazing volunteers and ten great staff so I don’ t feel comfortable taking credit for our students’ success because it does take an army. But we have all enjoyed watching so many successful students move on, get their first apartments and first cars, find a special partner, come to the café to tell us first that they are expecting a child, inviting us to their high school graduations or calling many of us on Mother’s Day. We have seen our young men move out of gangs, even if it was a dangerous thing to do. We have seen our young women move out of abuse relationships, even if it meant living in a shelter with their children. We have seen our students rally together to support one another, and all of us staff, when one of our students was shot and killed, and they always hug us when we get stressed and tell us everything is going to be okay. Apathy is what they come to the café with because their lives have been so difficult and sympathy and love is what they leave with. I am touched by every one of their stories and I am humbled by their strength and perseverance—once they start to believe they are worth the effort!
Why did you choose this next act?
I honestly didn’t choose this act. It chose me. As hokey as that sounds it is the truth. I had no skill set in working with ex-offender youth or teen mothers. I had no prior interest, excluding one class when I was 18—and I had taken that class because they went on fun field trips! I had raised two of my own children and helped raise my niece and nephew (Curt and Nancy’s kids) and I thought that was plenty. I was not affected by youth violence; I did not have anyone I loved arrested or incarcerated; I did not know people who were greatly affected by injustice.
I simply had an idea that could help. I saw that no one else was doing specifically what the kids were asking for, so I did what they asked me for and built a workforce program around the industry that I knew and loved. I moved one foot in front of the other without taking time to really think about spending my days with 18-year-old boys coming out of prison or 15-year-old mothers of two. I was moved to do what I do. I listened to my heart and moved in the direction it took me. And I have never ever been happier.
The only other option I considered was opening another type of business. I am very entrepreneurial and I don’t love working for other people. But it could have been a moving company, another restaurant, or a clothing store. I never thought about a nonprofit because I like making money and I have never understood how nonprofits work and didn’t have a deep desire to learn.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
Taking the plunge was not easy but I moved fast and didn’t allow myself to get discouraged. My husband and I took a home equity loan against our house (not a good idea, I know) and secured a place to open the café. I determined how much I could spend to build out the space to make it into a café and, with the remaining money, hoped to pay the rent for a few months until I could get grants.
I spoke with many people who thought it was a great idea, but when it came to writing the grants and getting money, none of them came through with funding. The reason I was told most often was that my idea wasn’t proven and they couldn’t give money to my good intentions. Of course, I understood that but it was painful. I ended up taking money out on credit cards, hoping a few people coming into the café and seeing the students improving every day would leave a donation, and I asked friends and family to help. The first two years were not pretty!
I met a woman, Lori Dube, before I opened and she believed in what I wanted to do and she has been a huge supporter to the café from day one. She was an angel in an apron because she helped recruit her friends for funding, she made scones, she cleaned tables, and her husband even helped with our legal struggles. Without her help and belief in me and my crazy idea, I don’t know how I would have done it.
After two years of a proven track record, we have been able to secure grants and larger donations but it is still a huge struggle. The young women’s program gets more funding because who doesn’t want to help a teenage mother who is struggling? But we started with the boys’ program, and funding young men coming out of prison is not quite as intriguing.
Our first Board of Directors helped me to build the café/job training part of the program because I knew that could bring in at least 50% of the money needed to run the program. Basically I hoped the sales at the café would cover general operating and half the staff; this has turned out to be true. But we continue to fundraise for stipends for the students, the social workers, the overhead for students needs, our management staff, and a small portion of general operating expenses. Our evolving Board of Directors is charged more with funding and support for services required by our youths.
How supportive were your family and friends?
Our kids had gone to college by then and from a distance they thought it was cool. They didn’t understand why I was doing it but they were 100% supportive. My husband was rock solid behind me. He never questioned what I thought I could do; he supported me financially and allowed me to make very generous loans to the organization to get it started. He didn’t question me working 18-hour days for two years, not taking vacations with him, or not helping around the house. I am still only about 30% back on a normal track but he is patient and understanding.
My family has always been supportive and, although they questioned me more than my husband, they all helped paint, hang pictures, cook, design, whatever I needed. They continue to have my back all the time in every way. I am lucky because I have six brothers and sisters and all of us have been in the restaurant business for long periods of time. Until last year, we all lived within 15 miles of the café. Now one of my brothers lives in San Francisco, but that’s okay because our son is there and they have had dinner together most Sundays—keeping up our family tradition of Sunday dinners and hanging out together.
My sister Nancy bought my shares of stock at Food For Thought, which helped me tremendously my first three years at the Café. She supplies all the food for our fundraisers and takes our students on tours of the catering kitchens whenever we have a graduating class. Her kids, Adam and Rosie, helped paint the new café on Thanksgiving break and both donate to the café. Amazing young people, if I say so myself!
Our Mom, Betty, was diagnosed with cancer the day after I opened the first Café. She fought the disease for a year and for most of that time you could find her sitting on the couch at the Café chatting up people and telling them about the program. She was so proud of me but, more importantly, I believe she was happy to see that I had found my passion, one that would make me soar and that would change my life in a positive way forever. We lost our Mom in 2013 and the day one of our graduate students found out, he came right to the café to see if he could take me out for pizza because he knew I was sad. This from a kid who was making $8.25 an hour and had a child to support!
I have been fortunate to have won awards like the “Key to the City of Evanston” and was a runner up for Loréal Paris “Woman of Worth”—I received a trip to New York where I was on the stage with the Loréal spokespeople and many celebrities. Although I missed our mom, I knew she was there, smiling and so, so proud. The fact my daughter nominated me allowed me to fully embrace the experience and walk proudly. Even though I didn’t win the biggest prize awarded, I felt I had!
My friends were very supportive and all wished they could have helped but most of my friends are doing similar work and have no time. I have made the most amazing friends since I opened the café—friends I will have for a lifetime. People like Lori Dube who believed in what I wanted to do when I might have questioned it. Who came in at five in the morning and left at ten at night and said, “Wow, this is amazing.” The best friend a girl could ask for.
What challenges did you encounter?
The hardest part for me was when people would come into the café the first six months and say “you are so brave to do this,” or “you are living your dream, I am so envious,” or “you are so smart to be able to do this,” and so on. That was hard because it made me think, “what the hell have I just done!” Up to that point, honestly, I moved with my heart and my calculated business plan, but not fully with my head. I also still don’t believe I did anything that special so it was very embarrassing and difficult for me to navigate that public image.
I have learned to accept the compliments gracefully but I still do not feel as if I’ve done something great. I see the students we work with doing ten times more work every day than I do and they take many more risks than I ever could. They have to walk past dangerous gang neighborhoods; they also have to try things that they have been told they would fail at because most of them have had verbally abusive parents, teachers, “loved ones,” who told them they wouldn’t amount to anything. The students also risk failure—one more time—and that is the hardest risk of all. You can only get knocked down so many times (homelessness, abuse, failed schooling, jail) until you decide to just stay down there.
Financially, I encountered many challenges. I have run out of money often because asking for money, writing grants, etc. is not a skill set I have. I am actually terrible at it. I continue to struggle with this but I knew enough, as a businesswoman, to surround myself with people who shored up my weaknesses. I have just hired a part time Director of Development with the hopes that we can grow our program and, more importantly, ensure that we always have funding for our existing program.
Then there was the physical challenge. I am no longer a young woman and working 18 hours on my feet is hard! I don’t ever feel it during the day but I get home and question what I was thinking. Who, at almost 60 years old, works 80 hours a week, physically and emotionally always on the high shelf of insanity, and then wonders why she is tired? The body and mind have different ideas and the body seems to be whining a lot of the time.
I was able to jump right in and identify the needs of the students from day one because our son always had a living room full of friends at the house. He was a kid who didn’t see color, economic differences, or the importance of hanging out in just one group or clique. So our house was filled with every kind of kid possible. They were always hungry and I was often home from work when they got home and fixed platters of food—which made me their best friend fast! I also was raised not to judge, and I think the students see that in me right away.
I do struggle with compartmentalizing the stories I hear. I still keep my phone on all night, on my nightstand; I have answered many calls late at night from kids who need blankets or bus cards, kids who just want to talk, and kids who are scared or lonely. When we were able to hire full time social workers, I noticed I got fewer calls but I am very much a mother figure to many of the students—and one of the kids just said I reminded him of his grandmother. I had to scold him for that but then realized I was actually older than his grandmother!Staffing is always a challenge in the restaurant business and Curt’s Café is no different, and I’m still learning to navigate the differences between the way social workers think and work (“lets take a minute and talk about that”) and the way restaurant managers think and work (“do it fast, do it now, and do it my way so the customer is happy and comes back!”) but it’s getting easier. We are all doing the work for the same reason—to give the students a chance in life—so we have managed to navigate our way. My current desire is to get a benefit package funded for our staff so we can get and keep the same caliber of staff that for-profit organizations can attract.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I never thought about giving up but I did question my sanity more than once. Lori Dube, my husband, family, and kids were all there to tell me I was on the right path and help me—even when I didn’t know I needed the help. Also, our students seem to rally when I am down and they keep me moving with hugs, successes, phone calls about their new jobs, or just calls to see how I am doing. It’s amazing.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I am stronger and smarter than I ever gave myself credit for. I need to learn how to ask for help. I am stubborn when I see someone is being taken advantage of. I will always advocate and speak up for those who have lost their voice because one day that person might be me.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Not one thing. If I would have learned more about the nonprofit industry or the young adults I chose to serve, I could have made it much easier for myself and others concerned, but I might have also decided not to do it! I realize now that I took a huge risk—and continue to actually—because I had no idea if the program would actually work. I still have a tremendous amount of money on the line (and I didn’t get paid for the first 3 1/2 years) but I believe in the work with all my heart, I believe in the students, and I know I’m smart enough to figure out how to make it sustainable. Opening a nonprofit with no nonprofit experience would not be considered a good business move but moving forward I feel I have the skills sets required to do the job better.
I had no money to fall back on and I had no plan on what to do if I ran out of money. The kids I choose to serve have been in prison sometimes for 5-10 years and if I had really thought about it maybe there was a reason very few are willing to put to much time or money into them.
Again, I moved with a full heart and a pretty good business plan. More planning and knowledge would have told me to run in the other direction and not look back! But the success our students have had (2% recidivism vs national average of 86% recidivism) proves that the kids are well worth every dollar we spend and every tired night I spend.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Go with your heart and be brave. Find someone to take the journey with you if possible. It is so much more fun if you have someone else to run ideas by, enjoy a glass of wine with, or brainstorm next steps with. Someone who understands why you are doing what you are doing even more than you do. Someone who believes in you as much as you believe in yourself and someone who has strengths that you envy. But do it! Make the change, if you feel you should. Don’t be someone who “wishes they would.” Be proud that you tried. There are no failures in trying in my book. The only failure is listening to fear, not your heart!
I would encourage all the women reading this not to write a script for their lives in pen. Write in pencil so you can gracefully erase if you choose another path. It is so admirable, in my eyes anyway, when I hear about people who followed their heart and work harder than ever but share stories and belly laughs about what they do. “Genuinely happy” can’t be bought or pushed, it must be lived by being true to yourself.
What advice do you have for those interested in starting a nonprofit?
Meet with those of us who have taken the leap and learn from us so you are looking for the guideposts on your path. They aren’t always visible but they are important. They keep you out of the ditch and from skidding into the car in front of you. Make sure it is what you love by working with one of us doing this work. If it’s meant to be, an opportunity will present itself.
What resources do you recommend?
I read Father Boyles’ Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion when I was at a low point and it motivated me to keep doing what I’m doing. He tells real stories. They spoke to me in a unique way.
I read all business books, not nonprofit books very often. I want to run our business like a real business so it’s up to us to keep it open, not a government funding agent or a grant funder. I read books like:
The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World by Elkington Hartigan
The Great Game of Business: The Only Sensible Way to Run a Company by Jack Stack
Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big by Bo Burlingham
The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber
I also enjoy Success Magazine and subscribe to SmartBrief on leadership every day because it always has a link that pertains to what my business is going through.
I also read appropriate websites and books on judicial justice, such as:
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good by Cory Booker.
I have over 30 years in the food business but I still read all those magazines as well, like QSR (Quick Service Restaurant), Catering, and Tasting Panel.
For website development, I use Laura Fairman of Blue Canvas in Chicago. She was 100% on top of what I asked her for, she understood my vision and my business, and she continues to be at arm’s length when needed.
What’s next for you?
Because it is such a young organization, I am dedicated to making Curt’s Café successful and sustainable. We are on our way and work hard every day to get the kids jobs and to make sure we are here for them as they grow and mature. Our 2016-2017 goal is to open one or two other Cafés for kids in Chicago and North Chicago/Waukegan so that will keep me busy and focused.
I would like to visit other like-minded organizations in the United States and abroad to see how they are handling workforce development, recidivism, and youth needs (highly at-risk underserved youth). I think there is a wealth of information out there that I just have not had the time to tap into. Because restaurant people work on their feet, making phone calls would not be as beneficial as working next to someone for 3-4 days and then documenting best practices. Fellowship would be amazing to build an even stronger foundation to what we do.
Contact Susan Garcia Trieschmann at email@example.com
2922 Central St, Evanston IL
1813 Dempster St, Evanston IL
Watch my Ted Talk
This is one of your best stories, Hélène! I love this woman!
Thanks Corie. I know, such a huge heart!!