Tevlin: Diner training homeless for life off streets

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 10, 2013 - 8:00 PM

One moment of clarity came to Henry Wallace in the form of a failed egg salad sandwich.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Wallace, shaking his head. “It was a disaster.”

Too much white pepper. Too much salt. Customers at the Daily Diner in St. Paul’s Frogtown, where he was training for a job in the restaurant business, sent it back.

That’s when it clicked for Wallace: “I can’t prepare it like I don’t care.”

A couple of years earlier, Wallace had lost a job as a bus driver and found himself homeless. He turned to the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul for help.

Wallace began learning life and work skills through various programs at the mission, then was chosen as one of the first two participants in the Daily Diner’s restaurant trainee program.

The restaurant, which opened in April at Dale Street and University Avenue, was conceived as a way to provide a clean, safe gathering place in the neighborhood while also giving the mission’s needier clients a chance to learn skills in an industry always looking for help.

Wallace completed the training program and will start an apprenticeship at Key’s Restaurant in St. Paul this week, along with the other graduate, Johnathan Sacada.

Sacada was a college freshman when “a gambling problem reached an all-time high and things were going down the tubes,” he said. “If there was money to be made, I bet on it.”

Out of money, Sacada stole a car one winter day to keep warm. He got caught, and spent 277 days in jail.

He also ended up at the mission and began its Discipleship Program, which mixes Bible lessons with financial management and other skills.

“It’s the first thing I’d ever finished on my own,” Sacada said. “It was a big deal. It gave me the motivation to get myself together.”

Although they had no experience in the industry, Wallace and Sacada both applied for the training program. Wallace said filling out the book-length application took him three days.

Over the past few months, the trainees have worked about every job in the diner, from busboy to server to host to sandwich line preparer to chef.

Wallace, a gregarious talker and “social cat,” has gravitated to the front-of-the-business jobs.

“He likes joking and talking to people,” Sacada said. “I love cooking. I love being back there focused on the food.”

Both admit that there have been challenges.

“The biggest challenge for me was anticipation,” Wallace said. “Am I going to be able to do it? I didn’t want to fail. They gave us a lot of support, so if I failed, it would be on me.”

For Sacada, learning to work the line while maintaining strict food safety standards proved a challenge. He was surprised at how exacting being a chef can be.

“You had to practice to make sure your over-easy eggs were over-easy, and your over-medium eggs were over-medium,” he said. It’s a skill that has become automatic.

Nick Gisi, who manages the diner for the mission, said Wallace and Sacada have “gotten a really good grasp on how a restaurant runs from a business perspective.”

He added, “They’ve also learned skills such as responsibility, discipline and getting to work on time. That’s really important.”

“Before I got on the line, I was really, really nervous,” Sacada said. “I realized, wow, people are paying for this food. Now it’s gotten to the point where I know it will be good. Now it’s about presentation.”

Last week, Sacada had a nibble at a permanent job. Wallace hopes to finish his apprenticeship and catch on somewhere.

“I’ve got to say my life has been changed so much, and I’m so grateful for everything I’ve gotten from the mission,” Wallace said. “I want to be successful and show people it can be done.”

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