Forging Hope at Billings Forge
Words by Dean Russell
Photographs by Michelle Martin
Tucked away in Downtown Hartford, Connecticut in a set of red brick industrial era buildings, The Kitchen at Billings Forge lives – a unique place for some of New England’s best locavore dining.
To walk into the cafe and smell the shortbread, the red beets and freshly roasted butternut squash, it’s obvious that The Kitchen knows their food. But to look beyond the plate, into the frenzied room of ovens and dough and chopped greens, there is a story with roots much more penetrating.
The Kitchen, founded in 2009, began with a mission to mix the gift of good food with the gift of opportunity. Located in one of Hartford’s poorest neighborhoods Frog Hollow, Billings Forge Community Works - the organization behind The Kitchen - not only serves locally-sourced cafe food, offers catering and fine dining, but runs a job training program aimed at arming city residents with the skills and education to break down socioeconomic barriers.
“We do food, we run urban agriculture and we run a business,” says Mike Miller, director of special projects at Billings Forge. For him, breaking the poverty cycle is just simply part of the business model.
“We take folks out of incarceration, the homeless, the unemployed,” says Miller, “all the folks that nobody wants and nobody will give a chance to, we get up and running in three-to-five months.”
Connecticut, with a median household income of $69,000 a year, is the fifth wealthiest state in the country. Frog Hollow, where The Kitchen is located and gets many of their trainees, sees household income at merely $14,000. Its unemployment rate is 10% higher than the national average.
Violence and a lack of education have plagued its streets for years, along with political promises to stimulate opportunity that just never came through. The Kitchen, however, offers a small window for change.
Each trainee is selected and placed into a three-month program earning Connecticut’s minimum wage of $8.70 per hour. They work alongside The Kitchen’s chefs and are trained on everything from the basics to the Kitchen’s philosophy of rich, whole foods.
The aim is to give these men and women a shot at real growth in the long term. “The last thing we want to do is to put people into poverty jobs,” Miller says. “We just got a couple of people jobs with $22 an hour and benefits and they feel like they’ve hit the jackpot.”
Still, the effort is continuous and Billings Forge has to keep an eye on it’s own future as well as the trainees.
“We could be a hell of a lot more profitable if we didn’t do the training,” jokes Mike Miller, director of special projects at Billings Forge. It’s likely true. But with a job placement rate averaging between 85 and 90 percent, Miller is notably proud of their successes. “By the time they leave us, they could work in a fine dining establishment,” he notes, adding, “we make everything from scratch so they are able to walk into any kitchen.”
“From scratch” is no exaggeration. Along with their efforts to provide a stepping stone to those in need, they also run a community garden that supplies fresh produce for The Kitchen and their fine dining partner, the four-star Hartford restaurant Firebox.
Not for nothing, they also host culinary classes open to the public and a weekly farmers’ market in Frog Hollow where local growers accept food stamps in an effort to broaden the community’s food landscape.
Asked how it all stays together without any pieces falling through the cracks, Miller laughs. “Nothing is simple which is why it works.”
This year marks The Kitchen’s fifth in operation. There have been some bumps along the way, but in Miller’s words, “we’ve gotten a lot better at this.”
Back in The Kitchen, the chefs are talking with the trainees, hard at work. The steam from the oven fogs the windows. The smells are intoxicating. So are the dreams.
Customers come in and, many of them have no idea what goes into it all. But that’s okay. Because in the end, everyone at Billings Forge - the trainees and chefs, alike - have one mission in mind: really good food.
To learn more about The Kitchen at Billings Forge, visit www.billingsforgeworks.org