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Kitchen trains cooks

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After teaching English to parochial-school students for 13 years, Linda Vogler returned to school herself, earned a culinary degree and took a job as head chef at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, where she fed 4,000 people a day.

Ten years later, she left Presbyterian to head a new nonprofit formed to teach prisoners, recovering addicts and other unemployed and unemployable individuals how to cook.

The Community Culinary School of Charlotte, which prepares thousand of meals for homeless and elderly people every week, has trained more than 140 cooks in its first four years and launched a for-profit catering business.

Now, the school is competing for a cash award and strategic consulting to help it build on its enterprising mix of teaching, cooking, charity and profit.

“Because we deal with people who face huge life challenges,” Vogler says, “we have to be flexible every day with what we do and what we provide.”

The school’s emerging role as nonprofit entrepreneur reflects its genesis as an entity formed to meet the practical needs of two hunger-fighting agencies.

One of them, Community Food Rescue, had a hard time finding people trained to prepare donated perishable food the agency collected from restaurants and stores and then distributed to local charities.

The other, Friendship Trays, a Meals-on-Wheels agency, found the new kitchen it had built to prepare meals for elderly people was getting no use in the afternoons.

So the two groups teamed up to launch the culinary school to train jobless people as cooks by teaching them to prepare meals for hungry people.

“We address the root cause of hunger, which is unemployment,” Vogler says.

Students, referred mainly through courts and social-service agencies, as well as churches and other groups, enroll in day or night classes lasting 10 to 12 weeks.

Ninety-eight percent of the school’s graduates have landed cooking jobs at country clubs, restaurants, nursing homes, caterers and other groups.

The school depends on donations and grants, including United Way support for training Hispanic cooks, but it wants its for-profit catering business eventually to cover one-fourth of its operating costs.

Encore Catering, which employs graduates of the school and does not use donated food, feeds roughly 870 people and generates nearly $11,000 each month from weddings, receptions and box lunches delivered to nonprofits, businesses and other customers.

The school also is among 80 entrepreneurial nonprofits – selected from 655 that applied — vying for consulting and cash awards through a national business-plan competition sponsored by the Partnership on Nonprofit Ventures of the Yale School of Management and Goldman Sachs Foundation.

Vogler hopes to expand the catering business into wholesale and retail sales, and to open a restaurant, training even more people in more aspects of the food-service business.

“You don’t every want to get to where you think you need to be,” she says, “because then you’re not growing.”

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