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2017 FSM Foodservice Leader of the Year DC Central Kitchen’s CEO Mike Curtin

When you walk into DC Central Kitchen’s kitchen about two hours before lunchtime, you are met with the aroma of onions, the sight of dozens of volunteers chopping vegetables in unison, the banter of culinary students stirring pots — really big pots — of soup, and a tangible feeling of camaraderie and hope. At the baton of this “orchestra” — full of energy and commitment himself — is CEO Mike Curtin, who is being recognized as Foodservice Monthly’s 2017 Foodservice Leader of the Year.

Who is Mike Curtin?
Many FSM readers know him already. He describes himself as a “recovering restaurateur” who worked in the hospitality industry for 14 years before joining DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) — two of them (2001-2003) as chairman of RAMW — and five of them as owner of the Broad Street Grill in Falls Church, Va. Curtin wanted the Grill to be a community place because, as he says, “restaurateurs are committed to their communities, and restaurants provide a place where people can gather, share, and learn,” along with a hoped-for good meal. His restaurant provided all of that, but when it had to go out of business due to undercapitalization, “I had to admit failure,” he says. “It was very hard for me.”
But good things came out of the restaurant experience anyway, including meeting and volunteering with DCCK’s founder Robert Egger. When a DC Central Kitchen COO opportunity came along, Mike Curtin applied for the job. That was a little over 13 years ago, and he says it’s been “a glorious ride ever since.”

From the beginning…
…Curtin was intrigued with the idea of taking things that most people had marginalized — both food and people — and creating value from them. “I saw in the nation’s capital this incredible lacking and this poverty and despair. I saw the Kitchen as a place to fight and change that.” He knew, as did Egger before him, that “we can never feed our way out of hunger. Instead,” he says, “we’ve got to break our way out of the cycle of poverty with jobs. That’s the heart and soul of the Kitchen.”
But there weren’t enough jobs when Curtin arrived. At that time, the non-profit was more of a traditional charity, based mostly on philanthropic contributions and left-over food donations. It provided meals for the hungry, certainly, and Curtin expanded catering operations. But that wasn’t enough, particularly as the economy went south during the 2007-2008 recession. Curtin realized he had to change the formula because “the money dried up. So, instead of doing what most were doing — hunkering down — we decided to expand. If we hadn’t,” he says, “we’d have had an even bigger hole to climb out of. We had to take it to another level.”

That next level…
…included not just providing meals, job training, and catering. “We needed to fi nd a steady, predictable business line with employment and growth potential.” The answer was school food. Today, 63 percent of DCCK’s budget is earned income, predominantly through a contract to provide meals for two private and 12 District of Columbia public schools. The Kitchen also added food packaging as a way to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to local corner stores in D.C.’s food deserts.
With those initiatives, the opportunity to create more jobs and more job training grew, too. Through its Culinary Job Training (CJT) program, the Kitchen holds four 14-week training sessions per year, graduating between 100 and 110 people annually. Trainees come from all walks of life. About 60 percent have been incarcerated. Seventy percent have experienced substance abuse. “They are women and men who have suffered abuse or trauma, people who have been chronically homeless and unemployed for much of their lives,” says Curtin. “All have experienced significant barriers to meaningful employment.”

More than pots and pans
“Only about 50 percent of what we do is about pots, pans, stoves, and knives,” says Curtin. The rest of what DCCK teaches is life skills, which will help people not only get a job but keep it. The National Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation has developed a list of 11 competencies that entry-level employees must learn to succeed on the job. DC Central Kitchen is part of a national pilot program, with eight other organizations, to test whether it works. “We teach life empowerment skills, such as showing up on time, playing nicely in the sandbox, and following directions.”
The application process is rigorous. DCCK recruits actively in prisons and via the criminal justice system. It doesn’t work, though, until a candidate is ready, says Curtin. “It doesn’t make any difference unless the candidates want to make changes in their lives. They have to have reached a point of ‘this is it. I need something else or what’s next is not good.’” After a first interview, there is a three-day trial in the kitchen, followed by another interview. Curtin proudly notes, “National job training programs result in about a fifty percent success rate. We have an 80 percent graduation rate once people are in the program, so we feel we are doing pretty well.”

And where do the graduates go?
One hundred eighty-one people work at DCCK, 81 of whom are program graduates. Together, they prepare almost 13,000 meals per day — 5,000 for the community and 7,500 for schools. As Curtin notes, “That equates to a very big restaurant!” Other graduates work in local restaurants and with foodservice providers throughout the DMV region. In fact, though, job generation has gone well beyond that, Curtin says. Farms from southern Pennsylvania to the Shenandoah Valley have benefitted from hundreds of thousands of dollars of purchases to help meet the Kitchen’s needs. “The economic ramifications of this are stunning,” he says, “at every point along the supply line. We are an economic development generator. It’s not free food for poor people, we are in the economic development business.”

And the food…
For years, DCCK focused on food at the end of the food stream, collecting what was left over at restaurants. Now, says Curtin, restaurants are a lot smarter, with much less going to waste. In fact, he says, less than three percent of the Kitchen’s food is donated from restaurants. Sixty-five percent is donated from other sources, and the Kitchen concentrates heavily on going local. “Local farms have produce that is geometrically or aesthetically challenged, with little or no commercial value,” he explains. “About 40 to 60 percent of what’s grown on the farm never makes it off the farm because it’s not the right shape or size. But once you cut up a cucumber that’s too skinny or too fat, it’s beautiful, no matter how it started!”
DCCK has a fleet of trucks to pick up food from a 200-mile radius of its D.C. location, in the shadow of the U. S. Capitol. Curtin is particularly excited about a brand new all-wheel drive van, donated by the World Bank, that can go anywhere in any weather. “We don’t close during emergencies,” he says. “In fact, we often have to double our production for other homeless shelters when there is a snow emergency. We and the first responders are often the only ones out there.”

Looking ahead…
…Mike Curtin hopes more restaurants will hire from the DC Central Kitchen talent pool. “What we hope to see is the Kitchen and the restaurant community grow together.” He describes the Kitchen as a place where people gather around a common table. Food, he says, is one thing we all have in common, no matter who we are or where we come from — from a chef, to a taxi driver, to the president of the United States. “We all have something to give and something to learn. When different people come together around the table, we can see the change we want in our communities.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT DC CENTRAL KITCHEN, please go to dccentralkitchen.org. For information on how you can hire its graduates, please contact Jamilah Al-Bari at jal-bari@dccentralkitchen.org, or 202-601-7321.

About the Author

LISA KEATHLEY is the managing editor of Foodservice Monthly.

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