When the Daily Diner opened in St. Paul Monday, it gave Frogtown that “new restaurant smell,” with the scent of bacon and French toast wafting around the corner of University and Dale.
The place was already bustling by 8 a.m., as new neighbors came in to sample the classic diner food, accented with a few items that reflect the diversity of the area (think carnitas Benedict and sweet and sour chicken).
Nick Gisi, a 25-year restaurant veteran who helped pull the diner together and hire staff, scampered around the restaurant clearing tables and welcoming people.
“How’s the oatmeal? Good!”
The Daily Diner, with its curved facade that gives customers an expansive view of the busy corner and light rail, brings a new life and gathering spot for Frogtown, but the slogan on the menu promises more.
“Now serving dignity, self-reliance and courage,” it reads.
Gisi’s wife, Gail, likes to put it another way: “Saving lives with a side of fries.”
The restaurant is several years in the making and owes its existence to unusual investors: donors who bought into the Union Gospel Mission’s vision to provide a safe, clean place for neighbors to gather while also training some of its needier clients in the restaurant business. The idea came after a couple of years of planning, lots of support and plenty of elbow grease.
The workers who got the place up and running Monday were hired from the general population to make sure the diner gets off to a good start. David Lindahl, who has 35 years experience, is the manager. Jason Koehn, executive chef, has 20 years of experience with the Champps chain.
They will soon be joined by trainees, many with little or no restaurant experience.
“Some have been in prison, which can be a big barrier to employment,” said Nick Gisi, whose other job is the director of the men’s programs for the mission. “Some have been addicts and are in recovery or they have been homeless. They are people who don’t have a good work history so it’s hard to work themselves out of poverty.”
Union Gospel Mission’s goal is to put 25-30 trainees through the 12-week program by the end of the year. Each student will take turns at a variety of jobs in both the kitchen and front of the house.
“They will get the big picture on how a restaurant runs,” Gisi said. He said he has already reached out to other area restaurants interested in hiring some of the graduates after they complete the program.
Candidates for the full-time jobs will be interviewed and chosen based on their ability to commit to show up for the program every day. The nonprofit chose the location both because of its proximity to public transportation with buses and light rail, and because they want to be part of the revitalization of Frogtown.
“We’ve gotten great response from the neighborhood,” Gisi said. “It’s been a community effort.”
Artwork in the shiny new restaurant reflects the neighborhood, including a large mural that covers one wall. Another painting at the entrance reflects the other part of the goal: It’s a giant pack of Lifesavers. Each customer will get one as they leave to remind them their meal was for a good cause.
“One of the biggest things that concerns us is that [our clients] don’t have hope anymore,” Gisi said. “When they do get back on their feet, a lot of them are proud that they paid taxes, maybe for the first time. Here, they’ll be in an environment where they can just feel like a regular person.”