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Daily Diner Frogtown serves up a big stack of food, assistance

Posted on 13 November 2013 by robwas66

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The Daily Diner Frogtown looks out over University Avenue. (Photo by Jan Willms)

There’s a new place in town, at 615 University Ave. It has tempting fare, such as a big chunk of meatloaf, covered with caramel­ized onions, beef gravy and featuring a Scotch egg in the center, or cheesy Parmesan hash browns or a catfish sandwich on a hoagie roll.

But the Daily Diner Frogtown does more than serve up a mouthwatering menu. It provides a place for individuals who may have been down on their luck to get back on track while learning about careers in the food industry.

The Union Gospel Mission Twin Cities (UGMTC), which started in St. Paul in 1902 and has dedicated itself to helping the poor, the homeless and the addicted, is the sponsor of the training program offered at the Daily Diner Frogtown.

“A few years ago, we started dreaming a little bit,” said Gail Gisi, director of communication and adult education at UGMTC. “The Mission has a really comprehensive education and career development program already. We help individuals get their GED, write resumes and practice interviewing, but we offered no on-the-job training.”

Ken Peterson, executive director of UGMTC, added that they wanted to help prepare people who may be hard to employ to go out and get a job.

Peterson said there is easy entry into the food industry, and UGMTC could develop a needed public restaurant while at the same time providing a vocational program, Our Daily Bread, for qualified trainees. “The trainees could learn how to cook, be a hostess or server or prep cook,” Gisi said. “There are a lot of potential careers they could move into.”

The restaurant opened its doors Apr. 15 of this year. It operates with a full professional staff and currently has two trainees, Henry Wallace and Jonathan Sasada, learning the skills of the trade.

Nick Gisi, Gail’s husband and director of men’s programs for UGMTC, has a background of serving as manager of Perkins for 25 years, as well as working with other restaurants. Bringing this combination of experience with UGMTC and the hospitality industry, he has served as project manager for the Daily Diner Frogtown and as interim general manager to get the restaurant up and running.

Both Gisis have a long history with UGMTC. Gail has been with the Mission for 19 years and Nick for 10.

“We both started as volunteers,” Gail Gisi explained. “We just fell in love with the work of the organization and the people it serves. It is so fulfilling to be part of easing suffering in our community and seeing people’s lives changed in really significant ways.”

Regarding the restaurant, Nick Gisi explained that both trainees work 40 hours a week in a 12-week training program. “They are trained in every area of the restaurant, from front to back,” he said. “They also attend Serv-Safe training and become certified in that.”

He said they are taken to food shows and other restaurants. He is in the process now of partnering with other restaurants so that upon completion of their training, Henry and Jonathan will be able to do a 40-hour internship. “It will offer them another perspective of how other restaurants are run,” Nick Gisi said. “These two are our guinea pigs,” he added, with a smile.

The trainees have already gone through several programs at UGMTC before they begin at Daily Diner Frogtown.

“We do a curriculum with them, working on soft skills that help such as attitude and goal-setting, where to look for a job and what job will fit their strengths and personality,” Nick Gisi related.

“What I like most is meeting people,” emphasized trainee Wallace. “Everything about this job offers a different perspective.”

He said that while working as a server, it helps for him to have also learned about preparing the food so that he can explain the ingredients of a dish to the customer.

“It’s hardest when we get a rush,” he said, “but my coworkers have not let me get lost in the shuffle. We work well together. Our teamwork is fantastic.”

Mike Olinger, who has just started as the new general manager, agreed that everyone at the restaurant works well together. Olinger, who retired from 27 years at Unisys, taught as a substitute teacher for a couple years and then managed Sonic Drive-in five years, said this opportunity presented itself to him and intrigued him.

“I’ve spent my whole life focused on people, and I really like the program offered here, where we can help those who need it make a life for themselves.”

The Board of Directors for the restaurant, called the Fresh Start Board, is composed of people from the food industry. Board members include a chef who has written a cookbook, restaurant owners, and people from the hospitality and restaurant design field.

The restaurant is filled with work by local artists, including a mosaic by Lori Greene, owner of Mosaic on a Stick at 1564 LaFond Ave.; counter and ceiling art by Seitu Jones; bold and colorful paintings by Eric Pearson and a black and white mural depicting Frogtown.

It is kitty corner from the Rondo Library, with the windows of the restaurant forming a semi-circle that looks out upon University Ave.

Although admitting the area in the past may have not had a sterling reputation, Gail Gisi said she is hoping that will change.

“There are a lot of great businesses here, and also some wonderful neighborhood history, with Rondo and Frogtown,” Gail Gisi said. Photos in the restaurant reflect some of that history.

“This community is really committed to growth,” she said. “And we want to be a part of the community.”

“We’re expecting the light rail will impact the number of people coming into the restaurant,” Gail Gisi said. “The business right now really fluctuates, but we are hoping to get the word out.”

Reflecting back on the trainees, Gail Gisi said they are expecting 15-20 a year will graduate from the program.

“Whoever hires them will be hiring a good employee, clean and sober with good work skills,” she said. She said that UGMTC will not just help the participants find a job, but will follow them for three years, making sure the job is a good fit.

“Our mission is to change people’s lives.”

 


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