Inspire BBQ, closed on H street as condos come in, searches for a new lease on life


Serving food in the buffet line are, left to right, Frank Peterson, Shawn Lightfoot and Kenny Payne during a pre-Father's Day breakfast at the Metopolitan AME Church in Northwest D.C. on June 14. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

Catering a Saturday breakfast at a downtown church in the District, Chef Furard Tate hoped a diner would find inspiration while trying the grits, scooped onto plates by a formerly homeless veteran who never imagined he’d keep a job. Or maybe it would come from observing the sweat of the woman running in and out of the kitchen, eager to work hard in the first job that looked beyond her violent past.

“Thank you, honey, for doing a great job,” Tate told her. “You know I appreciate you.”

Tate has spent more than a dozen years employing a simple philosophy: Anyone can become self-sufficient if given respect, and a job. He’s given life skills training and a paycheck to as many as 100 veterans and unemployed youths each year at Inspire BBQ, the nonprofit soul food restaurant housed in a building he rented on the 600 block of H Street NE.

But this year, Tate cannot offer summer jobs to at-risk young people. The restaurant is shuttered, a casualty of a $4.5 million real estate deal. The building is going condo.

Tate finds himself pushed and pulled by two distinct forces in a changing, unequal Washington. He’s propelled by the city’s growing desire to find employers who’d hire ex-offenders, veterans and low-income youths. And he’s stymied by the realities of real estate in a rapidly redeveloping city.


Inspire BBQ's Furard Tate oversees operations in the kitchen during a pre-Father's Day breakfast at the Metopolitan AME Church on June 14. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

The two forces have coalesced to produce this irony: In a city with a thriving, new restaurant scene bursting with opportunities for the hardest-to-employ, one of the city’s best-known programs for training those workers no longer has a permanent place to teach them.

“When I heard we had to move, it was like a punch in the gut,” Tate said. “But I’m going to be positive that something will work out. If you stay positive, things will work out.”

Since February, Tate has booked more catering jobs to keep the program going. He’s held classes in the small kitchen of a private school this summer. When fall comes, he’ll have no place to go.

Starting out

Using his grandmother’s secret BBQ recipe, Tate combined his culinary experience and the skills he picked up as a job development specialist to launch the catering service known as Inspire BBQ. It was 2001.

Over 12 weeks of workshops, Tate teaches staff how to properly clean a professional kitchen and the hierarchies of a restaurant. He teaches them how to write a resume and apply for a job, and how to balance finances once you get one. The staff earns between $10 and $15 an hour working at catering events.

Tate vowed to practice the economics he preaches. If he wanted to teach people not to depend on government money, his organization couldn’t rely on it, either.

So in 2003 when the catering service didn’t bring in enough, he opened a restaurant in a part of the city where rents were cheap. At the time, H Street was still home mostly to take-out restaurants and an open-air drug trade. Tate’s clientele were folks from the neighborhood who came for collard greens and grits and his grandmother’s secret sauce, at $10 a plate.

He sought out relationships with nonprofit groups and churches who’d find unskilled workers for his program. It was an easy sell. A recent study from the city’s Alliance for Youth Advocates found that there were more than 14,000 District residents younger than 24 who were neither enrolled in school nor employed. The city’s rehabilitative youth services department is always looking for work for court-involved young people. And estimates show that at least 10 percent of District residents have criminal records.

“It’s quite challenging to find employers who are willing to provide meaningful training to or willing to hire returning citizens,’’ said Stephanie Reich, chief operating officer for the city’s Office of Employment Services. “Over the years, [Tate] has demonstrated his commitment to help this population re-integrate into the community and the workforce.”

U.S. Veterans, a social services agency, sent Frank Peterson. After Vietnam, Peterson became a homeless heroin addict. He spent two decades sleeping in abandoned houses and on park benches. After getting clean and moving to a transition home, a caseworker referred him to the program.

“[Tate] first said, you have to show up every day and you have to be on time,” Peterson recalled. “I wasn’t sure I could do even that.”

Tate’s charm encouraged him. The chef didn’t ask Peterson about his past, telling him it was in the past. Tate talked about how much he admired Vietnam veterans and offered a “thank you” after each task.

“No one thought I could do anything,” Peterson said. Soon that would change.

Good match

The restaurant’s purpose suited the mission of the building’s owner, Pilgrim Baptist Church. The church purchased the property in 1997 to transform an old liquor store into something positive.

“There were already so many on the street and so close together,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Louis B. Jones II. “We needed more variety.”

Seventeen years later, the block boasts variety. Condos, beer gardens, restaurants. A Whole Foods is on the way. Late last year, a developer offered the church a lucrative deal to build a 30-unit condo building.

The property was assessed at $489,000. Rock Creek Property Group purchased it, along with the other buildings on the block, as a part of a $4.5 million deal.

Tate, already months behind in rent after losing foot traffic during streetcar construction, knew that searching in the area was futile. Commercial properties along H Street are now being sold at two or three times the price they were sold at just five years ago, according to Robert Tack, chief executive of the real estate agency Capital Retail Group.

“Everyone sees the opportunity to make money. Right now, the playing field isn’t leveled for people like me,” Tate said. “But that’s business. At least it’s a playing field.”

At the church breakfast, the three members training with him were trying to learn the skills that could keep them in Washington.

Tamara Harris, 25, placed cutlery on tables. She squinted her eyes to make sure the dishes were clean. She said she is more patient now than she was before, when her temper led to several arrests, mostly on assault charges.

“I think this program helps me calm down,” Harris said during a short break. “I used to be bored. Now I recognize that I can make it in this world.”

After breakfast was served, Tate gathered the staff in the kitchen.

“What we had today was excellent service,” Tate told them. “I’m very proud of you.”

Then Peterson started talking about the biggest news in is life: He got a job as a cook at a hotel.

“I had to go through four interviews for that one job,” Peterson said. “But I got through it. All I needed was one job. And I had two offers.”

Then, for the first time, Peterson told Tate the story of his addiction and his homelessness — things the chef never asked about because the past was in the past. But on this day, at this moment, that past mattered. As Tate catered breakfast at a downtown church, inspiration came to the chef from the man scooping grits, who once thought he never had a chance.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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