By 6 a.m., Charles Colbert is out the door of his Capitol Heights home and on his way to Largo. There he dons his white linen chef's cap and gets to work making the array of salads he likes to create for the customers he loves to chat it up with. The early hours notwithstanding, the 18-year-old is known for doing his job at the cafe with bright-eyed gusto.
"I treat 'em like family when they come in--suggest dishes to them, and sell stuff to 'em," the talkative teenager says of his breakfast and lunch customers at the Largo Government Center.
The place where Colbert serves up food and small talk is the new Millennium Cafe. It opened two weeks ago in the basement of the center, which houses offices for the county's public schools, health department and fire department. Most of the cafe's staff, including Colbert, came to the job as part of a county program designed to provide jobs for Prince George's County's school-to-work and welfare-to-work participants.
Colbert, a rising senior and one of more than 30 students enrolled in Crossland High School's year-long culinary arts program, got his $6-an-hour job at the cafe through Crossland teacher Edward Whitfield. Crossland has joined with the Workforce Services Corp., the quasi-private work force development group that designed and funds seven food service businesses in Prince George's, including the cafe.
The businesses train and employ teenagers and single parents--mostly mothers--looking to find jobs or to get off public assistance. All of the businesses have been grossing enough to pay the 60 or so participating students minimum wage or higher, Whitfield said. The partnership's first venture, a four-year-old catering business, has brought in $40,000 in revenue this year, Whitfield said. The additional capital to run the businesses comes from Workforce Services, which has spent about $85,000 in the last two years for maintenance and payment of wages, said Joseph P. Puhalla, the corporation's president.
Whitfield says his school's culinary arts program has become wildly successful, with a waiting list that forces him to turn some students away. The greatest part about the program is that it helps Prince George's retain employees such as Gerard Guest, the head chef at Millennium and a 1987 graduate of the high school's culinary arts program, he said. "We're hiring our own people back because we know they have experience," Whitfield said. Crossland students now work at concession stands at Watkins Regional Park, the Allentown Road Fitness Center, the Ellen Linson Swimming Pool and the Tucker Road and Herbert Wells ice rinks.
The hospitality field is one of the fastest growing employment sectors in the region. There are plans for two new Ritz Carlton hotels in Washington, a new Marriott in Rockville and new stadiums and arenas throughout the region that will create thousands of hospitality jobs that Prince George's County could take advantage of by training its residents, Whitfield said.
That has helped fuel a desire to expand the program. Two years ago, the county agreed to supply rent-free a two-room space in the Largo building for the kitchen, deli counter and 15 tables. Workforce Services donated almost $30,000 for the cafe's equipment.
Puhalla said the value of the Crossland program is that it gives high schoolers a chance to test out their career ambitions in a workplace setting. "The work-based opportunities give them a chance to take a look and make career choices," he said.
For cafe manager Alana Sewell, the biggest perk at work is getting to teach the youths how to run a business. Sewell, the mother of four, says her 14-year-old daughter, Tianna, works at the concession stand in Watkins Regional Park selling snack food. On her days off, the Fairmont Heights High School sophomore begs to come work at Millennium, where she gets additional training in sanitation, inventory, ordering and bookkeeping, her mother says. The teenager loves to work because "it gives her her own sense of independence because it gives her pocket money," and Sewell says it teaches the girl a work ethic that some of her older children lack, Sewell said.
William Young, a teacher at Crossland's culinary arts program, said about half of his students go straight into the hospitality industry. The advantage of Crossland's partnership with Workforce Services is that "they can go right into the work force or right into college," he said.
Sylvester Brown, Colbert's shy co-worker, works the registers at the cafe. Brown, 18, is a recent graduate of the culinary program at Crossland and says he plans to go to Montgomery Community College and become a mechanic. The school program and his work experience turned him on to starting his own business, not cooking, he said.
After their shifts end at the cafe about 1 p.m., both Brown and Colbert head to the Sears Auto Center in Landover, where they work second jobs until 9 p.m. and make $6.35 an hour changing tires and batteries. Brown says the 5 a.m. wake-up alarm is probably the toughest part of his day. Colbert says he no longer minds waking up that early. "I get tired, but I get a second gust of energy; I guess I'm energetic," Colbert said. They plan to work both jobs part time after school starts again in the fall.
Colbert, who has worked in various jobs at auto and shoe stores and fast-food restaurants, says his job at the cafe is the best way to link with businesses and get training he needs to go on to Johnson & Wales University in Norfolk, where he wants to get his two-year culinary degree beginning next year. "I haven't set my mind on one specific thing, but the food business is something I want to do," he said.
That bodes well for Ethel Mitchell's gastronomic future. The salads Colbert makes are among her favorites for lunch.
Mitchell is a secretary in one of the school district's offices above the cafe and has become a regular at the cafe since it opened. "The food is very good," Mitchell said. The menu offers a different selection every day, including marinated pork chops, fish, hamburgers and fettuccine. And the price is right: Main entrees are in the $4 to $5 range. Through her job, she is familiar with the culinary arts program and the vocational goals of the cafe, but she patronizes the cafe because the food is cheap, quick and tasty, she said.
The cafe, at 9201 Basil Court (Largo Government Center) in Inglewood Business Park, is open on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Breakfast is served until 9:30 a.m.