One of Annapolis’s newest restaurants has everything you would expect from a restaurant in the state capital’s arts district: trendy food, such as avocado toast for breakfast and seared salmon with caramelized shallots, herbed quinoa and avocado butter for dinner. A coffee bar features a variety of teas and lattes. Furnishings are heavy on reclaimed and repurposed materials, such as refinished Naval Academy chairs from the 1950s.
But the staff at the 50-seat Light House Bistro is not what you’d expect. Besides the four top managers, the entire staff, from greeters to servers to cooks, is made up of once-homeless men and women. All are clients of The Light House, a homeless prevention center in Annapolis.
The Light House Bistro, located at 202 West Street, opened in March after years of planning and fundraising. It is located in the former headquarters of the The Light House, which moved to a new building on Hudson Street in 2010. The West Street address also is home to a catering business, and the second floor houses four apartments for homeless men. Beth Rocca, the Bistro’s executive chef and general manager, and a veteran of 30 years in the restaurant business, says running the Bistro is a challenge because the staff has less experience than you’d find in other restaurants of its kind.
“But that’s the point,” says Rocca, formerly a chef and the food and beverage director at Loews Annapolis Hotel. “We want them to get that experience on their resume and move on to bigger and better things—more money, a sustaining job, housing.”
A handful already have moved on to jobs elsewhere, she says, and others have stayed with the Bistro from the start but moved up to better jobs—from line cook to sous chef for example. Jo Ann Mattson, executive director of The Light House, says some of the initial difficulties that came with using less-trained help have dissipated as the existing staff gains more experience. Almost all of the workers at least went through the organization’s culinary training program.
“We’ve grown in a short amount of time,” Mattson says. “If you walk into the Bistro, there’s nothing about it that says this is a place where people struggling with homelessness work.”
The Bistro’s slogan is “changing lives one meal at a time,” a nod both to the decent living the social enterprise offers its workers and to the fact that when (and if) the restaurant begins making money, Mattson says the profits will fund Light House programs for the homeless.
by Pete Pichaske