Cover Story: Holiday Issue 06 - Giving, receiving, dealing

Catering to Job Skills: Over-the-Rhine organizations serve meals along with life lessons

Woodrow J. Hinton

Even though socializing tends to be the primary focus, good food makes a get-together better. Sharing the names of favorite caterers is as much a holiday tradition as eggnog, but some of the best are so unconventional they're overlooked. Two such organizations that call Over-the-Rhine home are producing delicious food and doing it for something other than profit.

They do it to help people.

"The mission is to provide job training for people that nobody else accepts, that fall through the cracks, that need the personal skills along with the job training skills," says Ruth Cronenberg, a consultant for the Venice on Vine pizza parlor, which also houses Venice on Vine Catering.

Both are programs of Power Inspires Progress (PIP,, which creates opportunities for job training and job readiness skills for low-income individuals.

While most companies try to hire people with the most impressive resumes, Venice on Vine wants ex-felons, the homeless and others whom traditional businesses wouldn't consider as potential employees.

"People who have never worked or were incarcerated when they were 18 or 19 don't even know what's required to come for a job interview," says Barbara Wheeler, a Dominican Sister of Hope who cofounded PIP. "They don't know that you wear different clothes, that you have different mannerisms, that you talk about positive things.

"We have three job interviews.

They must come three times and on time before they're even hired. Some people just get spaced out from the first interview."

Once hired, a new employee makes $5.26 an hour and must successfully complete an orientation period in the pizza parlor.

"We have three shifts, and now we're working with them so that they have at least two days on every shift where they just watch what's going on," Wheeler says. "They must complete that, and then they start from there."

Things like learning how to operate a cash register, taking an order, doing inventory and ordering supplies are all handled by staff under the supervision of their trainers. Referring to the entire operation as a learning environment, Cronenberg says profits from the foodservice operations don't cover their costs.

"Everybody works at a slower pace because it's a learning pace," she says. "You don't have one person back there making pizzas as fast as they can. You have people back there learning how to make pizza, so the process takes more people and more time."

In addition to tossing dough and preparing buffet dinners, employees learn essential life skills such as working as a team and managing money.

"A lot of individuals are brought in to do workshops for the people here," Cronenberg explains. "We've had people come in teach them how to talk to one another, to do direct 'I' statements: 'I feel this.' The things a lot of us get trained for in school and various places."

By far, the favorite for all the employees is the catering work.

"It's like a field trip," says Judy Tensing, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and cofounder of PIP. "Last night I took Anastasia (an employee) to St. X High School. She saw there is an all-boys school. Then to have people thank her for her services is a real boost to building her skills."

Tensing says these opportunities teach employees that they have choices in their lives and what some of those choices might be.

Janet Sellers found that to be the case for her, too. She and two of her daughters just started Mother and Daughters Catering after they all graduated from Cincinnati COOKS, a program of the FreeStore FoodBank ( This cost-free program offered by the FreeStore FoodBank is a 10-week course that teaches the fundamentals of food service cost-free to people who are over the age of 18 and come from a low-income background. The program prepares meals Monday through Friday for the 12 Kids Café sites hosted by the FreeStore in low-income neighborhoods.

Far from being an academic environment, removed from the pressures of everyday life and free of distractions, the Cincinnati COOKS kitchen is a bustling, hands-on place.

"One of the challenges is always, at 400 meals a day, balancing training time and production time," Coskie says. "Ninety percent of it is experiential learning. It's not sitting in a classroom and talking about sautéing. You gotta come out here and sauté 40 pounds of chicken."

Another challenge is helping people complete the program. Coskie says 80 percent of their students graduate because the staff of three does more than just teach food prep.

"There are all kinds of barriers — child care, transportation issues, clothing, housing — and we formed a pretty good network of social service agencies around the city that we know where to direct them to get help with those kinds of things," Coskie says. "Because 10 weeks without any income is really tough for anybody, and a lot of them have used up their welfare, we provide (students) with one serving of everything they fix that day."

If there's any food left after that, students take the rest home to share with their families.

Like Venice on Vine, Cincinnati COOKS includes training classes for practical life skills. Both organizations use the word "family" to describe the relationships of their groups.

"You join the family once you've been here," Coskie says. "We have a huge family. We've got a lot of graduates who come back on their day off and volunteer in the kitchen. When we had our 50th graduation, we had about 100 graduates show back up. It's cool."

So when it's time to pick up the phone and place a catering order, consider hiring an unconventional family business to make your holiday gathering memorable. ©

Unconventional Catering
Cincinnati COOKS Catering 513-651-0700

Mother and Daughters Catering 513-251-1080

Venice on Vine Pizza/Catering 513-221-7020

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