Three years ago, Awot Haile was a longtime resident of an Ethiopian refugee camp with few prospects for a career or a home of his own.
Now he has a month-old Habitat for Humanity home, as many jobs as he can handle, and a realistic ambition to become an executive chef.
“I got freedom to work, so I work everywhere,” Haile says in careful, lilting English as he finely chops ginger for a salad dressing that will soon be sold at the Boise Co-op. “I am very friendly to them and they are nice to me.”
The 33-year-old native of Eritrea, a tiny African nation wedged between Somalia and Ethiopia, learned English skills, then serious cooking chops, through Create Common Good. When he completed a three-month paid training program in 2011, Create Common Good hired him part-time to work in the kitchen. Last year the nonprofit gave him a full-time gig that includes running its school-lunch program.
He beams as he talks about that job, which allows him not only to make charter school children’s lunches but deliver them and interact with the students.
“The kiddos, they like me,” he says. “It’s fun.”
Create Common Good founder and CEO Tara Russell calls Haile “a fantastic rising star” who exemplifies her group’s slogan: “We use food to change lives.”
The organization grows food on two small, pesticide-free East Boise farms. Its trainees cook food in a big new commercial kitchen, turning out restaurant sauces, packaged snacks and an array of commissary fare.
Create Common Good trains refugees to work in restaurants, cafeterias and other food-prep arenas, then helps them find jobs that can support their families. It boasts a 95 percent placement record for the more than 300 people CCG has trained in the past five years.
And everything the organization does, it plans to do much more of — soon.
“Right now we have five to seven regular clients and a handful of retailers who sell our products,” Russell says. “And we have about 20 potential new commissary customers.”
“In five years we want to become the premiere commissary and prepared food provider throughout the Pacific Northwest as well as to be a leading example and model of social enterprise across the country,” she says.
“Tara’s philosophy is ‘Dream big, start small, scale fast,’” says Rob Lumsden, owner of Flatbread Community Oven and a member of Create Common Good’s strategic advisory board.
The kitchen and farm fields are training grounds to help refugees and others gain the skills and knowledge they need to get jobs.
“Their relationship with the community shifts from dependency to contribution,” Russell says.
Not only does Create Common Good aim to make its clients self-supporting, it wants to approach that goal as an organization.
“Last year, 80 to 85 percent of our revenue was charitable, and 15 to 20 percent came from food products and services,” she says. “In the next three to five years, I want to kind of flip the math, so that food product revenue covers at least 70 to 75 percent of our expenses.”
The organization now has 11 paid staff members, about 1,000 volunteers a year and a 2013 budget of $1.1 million.
“Three years ago, we had no money and no paid staff, and we sort of boot-strapped our way to where we are now,” Russell says.
KITCHEN LEAP OF FAITH
Achieving CCG’s big dreams will be easier now that the nonprofit has its own 4,000-square-foot headquarters on South Federal Way with a gleaming kitchen occupying half of it. Until June, Create Common Good shared a small kitchen at the Cathedral of the Rockies.
“They were knocking out 600 meals a week on two burners and one convection oven,” says Tony Harrison, who provides free public relations services for the organization. “Now they have a real commercial kitchen.”
Russell says the roughly $350,000 investment, funded by grants and loans, is “very much a leap of faith, but we needed to do it in order to grow.”
The dream of a commercial kitchen became more practical when Fundsy selected Create Common Good as the sole beneficiary for its next funding cycle. Fundsy generally raises about $200,000 through auctions at its galas, which are held every other year — including next May. That should allow CCG to pay off most of its kitchen debt, Russell says.
The equipment includes steam kettles and a giant “tilt skillet.”
“With this amount of equipment here, I could feed 1,000 people like that,” says Executive Chef Brent Southcombe, snapping his fingers. A former Chef of the Nation winner for Australia, the Brisbane native worked in international restaurants and five-star hotels before signing on to head Create Common Good’s culinary program.
“When we walk into Whole Foods or Micron and we see our people in chef’s uniforms, no amount of money could bring you that kind of joy,” Southcombe says.
HAPPY HIRING GROUND
Training ranges from knife techniques and food safety to practical language and employment-enabling skills. Some people need only a couple of weeks to gain what they need to find a job that fits them. Others need eight to 10 weeks, Russell says. Instructors include a pastry chef and a cheesemaker.
Micron’s cafeteria and Whole Foods’ prepared-food department each employ several Create Common Good graduates. Kitchen-trained refugees are making inroads at local restaurants, too.
“Some of our early employees we took from Common Good, and many of those employees are still with us today,” Boise Fry Co. co-owner Blake Lingle says. “I think that’s a tribute to the work that they’ve done.”
“We’ve had really good luck with Common Good,” Lingle says.
So has Flatbread Community Oven, which hired CCG graduate Haile as a pantry prep cook about seven months ago.
“We have a relatively complex kitchen operation,” Lumsden says. “Awot was up to the challenge and is doing a phenomenal job.”
Lumsden says he would “absolutely” hire more people from Create Common Good.
“The level of appreciation that their employees have is remarkable, and it’s hard to come by,” he says.
Haile has been working about 25 hours a week at Flatbread in addition to his full-time job at CCG. At times he has juggled four or more jobs at various local restaurants: “I’d leave my house at 4 a.m. and come home at 1 a.m. again.”
It’s important, he says, to learn various styles of popular American eateries so he can reach his long-term goal.
Executive Chef Southcombe, Haile’s mentor and supervisor at Common Good, sees that goal as attainable.
“You don’t need to go to culinary school to achieve excellence,” he says. “You just need people to believe in you.”
NOT JUST REFUGEES
So far Create Common Good has focused primarily on training refugees, most of whom come from Africa, Asia or the Middle East. Russell estimates that a third of all adult refugees who come to Idaho go through Create Common Good’s training programs.
Most have been referred by refugee assistance agencies, but now that the operation has room to grow, Russell plans to draw trainees from a broader spectrum of at-risk communities, from the homeless to domestic violence survivors and those rebuilding their lives after substance abuse.
Already, she says, the program is training a former drug user who has turned out to be “a rock star in the kitchen.”
She envisions many new outlets for Create Common Good products. This fall, the organization plans to provide school lunches (Haile’s program) to up to five local charter and private schools, and it will launch an “order-driven prepared food program,” where families can order meals or buy their children’s school lunches from Create Common Good.
In June, the nonprofit hosted the first installment of a planned monthly Supper Club, a three-course, sit-down dinner at the new headquarters. Initially limited to donors and supporters, the guest list is now open to the public.
COMMON GOOD FARE
Shelf-stable products, including fruit and nut bars, are sold with Create Common Good labels at Whole Foods and elsewhere. And the nonprofit’s kitchen produces an array of fresh stocks, sauces, dressings, salads and desserts and pastries. It also runs a “chop shop” to produce pre-cut vegetables for sale.
“We make it fresh, and we make it to order,” Russell says.
Many of Boise Fry Co.’s sauces, including the popular blueberry ketchup and garlic aioli, are made by Create Common Good to Boise Fry Co.’s specifications. Lingle says the three restaurants will likely have more items, such as pickles, made by Create Common Good in the future.
Create Common Good also sells its produce as “farm shares” to families who want part of the bounty and as restaurant-ready vegetables. Boise Fry Co. has used its German butterball and purple Viking potatoes, Lingle says, but the farm plots — about 5 acres total — are not big enough to consistently meet the restaurants’ spud needs.
Flatbread Community Oven is interested in partnering further with Create Common Good to prepare products for the Boise company’s five restaurants, Lumsden says.
“We’re giving them a lot of our recipes to see if they can execute to our standard,” he says. “They need their refugees to develop kitchen skills so that they’re marketable, and the only way to do that is to increase the volume in their kitchen. It feels great to give them that opportunity.”
“We’re huge fans of their mission, and the people that they employ in trying to achieve that mission.”
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447