A restaurant in West Hartford that has always branded itself as an “eatery with a twist,” is now unveiling a new mission.
Zest 280 recently reopened its doors this month to provide a second chance to those re-entering the workforce.
"We're looking for people who are interested in the field, and have the aptitude for it and are ready to take the next step,” said Louis Lista, owner of Pond House Café and Zest 280.
Zest 280 is the sister restaurant of Pond House Café, on Park Road.
"They're going to have live kitchen experience working on a line and being in a real-world situation,” Lista said.
Zest 280 closed this past summer and reopened in the beginning of February, unveiling their new twist.
The externship program they are offering is for former inmates who are returning to the workforce and have an interest in the culinary field.
"They spend their first ten weeks at Billings Forge and give them the basic culinary experience and then they're coming over to us for the next ten weeks,” Lista said.
The money for the initiative comes from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and Lista said the program is made possible through their partnership with Connecticut Partners in Action (CPA).
According to CPA, everyone coming through the program has to be at least 18 years old and had to have come through a Department of Correction halfway house.
"I myself was incarcerated, just coming out of prison. I wanted to do something different with my life,” said Felicia Jenkins, who works at Zest 280 and has worked closely with CPA.
She said she has always dreamed of owning her own restaurant and will be overseeing the program.
"I think the best part for me is for people coming through the program, it makes it realistic. What they see is my face because I've been in the same situation as them and I can relate with what they're doing through,” Jenkins said.
There are already two people in the program at Zest 280, and when they're cycled out two more people will be cycled in.
Under Jenkins’ watchful eye, the trainees will learn everything from how to manage the lunch rush and how to greet diners as they walk into the restaurant.
On top of that, Lista said Jenkins will take over the restaurant within the next year.
"I've made chef instructor, sous chef, I worked for some of the best chefs in Connecticut. It will give them hope to know if I could make it, they can make it,” Jenkins said.
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