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New Fredericksburg cafe will train the homeless, unemployed

New Fredericksburg cafe will train the homeless, unemployed

Only $5 for 5 months

Tommy Abbott was the chef at Spencer Devon in downtown Fredericksburg when a new hire recommended by Micah arrived an hour late for his first day of work.

Abbot, who values time management skills, sent the man packing with a warning to show up on time the next day. The employee was 45 minutes late the second day, but said he planned to use a gift card from Micah to buy an alarm clock. For the next few months, he was never late.

"He had a lot of hunger for knowledge and ambition, but the tardiness came back," said Abbott. "I had to let him go."

Abbott, who knows first-hand what it's like to overcome a difficult past, wished he could have taken the man under his wing instead. That became the impetus for a pilot program he started at Spencer Devon, a nonprofit he's created and now a restaurant that he'll open by the end of the month in the former General Store Restaurant building at 2018 College Ave.

Project F.O.R.C.E., the nonprofit, will provide paid, 120-day internships at Corner Cafe FXBG for chronically unemployed and chronically homeless people as well as those recently out of jail who want to find gainful employment. They'll be taught time management and organizational habits, and gain entry-level skills working as cooks in the kitchen as well as hosts and servers in the restaurant.

Abbott is already interviewing candidates, and will select four who will be provided with a T-shirt, jeans, chef's pants and non-slip shoes to wear to work. They'll be trained in food safety and handling standards, and those who complete the internship can take a ServSafe exam. If they pass, they'll earn a ServSafe certificate.

That, along with being able to show recent work experience, can give them an edge when they apply elsewhere for a job, even if it's not at a restaurant, said Abbott, who is a SafeServ trainer and proctor.

"Just because this is a restaurant doesn't mean you have to go work at one," he said. "The skills transfer."

Abbott said he will connect interns with someone at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library to help them write their résumé if they don't already have access to that sort of support from such places as Loisann's Hope House or Rappahannock Goodwill's Job Help Center.

"The goal is to help them find a job in the community," said Abbott.

The burly, tattooed 37-year-old Richmond native also hopes that his own story will give interns hope and confidence to dig themselves out of their situations.

His first job was working for a caterer, and he fell in love with cooking. He worked his way up at various restaurants, and his passion "was creating beautiful plates of food." But Abbot also got involved in drugs, and served a 14-month sentence for forging checks a dozen years ago.

That, he said, was his wake-up call.

"It was daunting, like what am I going to do?" he said. "I had to kick the wheels. You can look at that point in my life and see only forward progress."

Today Abbott is married, the father of two little girls and is ready to step back from a restaurant career that involved working until midnight or later. He decided to launch Project F.O.R.C.E., which stands for Fostering Occupational Readiness through Community Enterprise, after realizing how helpful the pilot program at Spencer Devon had been.

He'd partnered with Micah on that effort, and taught a man who'd been living in his van how to work on the production line in the restaurant. The man held the job for a year and a half, got an apartment and found a second job.

"The impact for me was that this has value," Abbott said.

He set up Project F.O.R.C.E. and leased the space for Corner Cafe FXBG using funds from his own pocket and from a private donor who got her company to match her contribution. He's also looking into other possible sources of funding including the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grants and some local organizations.

Abbott said he picked the vacant General Store building as the location for both his nonprofit and the café because that restaurant had been in business nearly 40 years before closing in 2016, and was well known.

"People know where I am," he said. "I want people to know that I exist. The more recognition I get, the more support I can rally."

Abbott has made a few changes to the building, such as adding bar stools to the front porch and turning a section inside the building into a lounge area with a comfortable couch and chairs plus a couple tables. He envisions University of Mary Washington students gathering there for meetings or to study. They can order a cup of local Ricks Roasters coffee from the hostess and then serve themselves.

Walls in the main part of the restaurant are now white instead of bright red, but the old benches fashioned out of church pews remain. Décor includes works by local artists that are for sale, and Abbott said that he plans to frame some of the many business cards left by General Store customers. He's also left the old wooden hostess stand where it stood for years.

"This is an iconic place," he said. "I don't want people to forget it was The General Store, but it's now my business."

Corner Cafe FXBG will be open for breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The focus will be on locally sourced food, and the menu will feature sandwiches and flatbread pizzas made from scratch.

"We'll hold chef's dinners every other month to raise money," Abbott said, "and get the word out there of what we're doing."

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

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