The menu of Miami’s Vibe 305 Café is full of names that may seem unconventional — a pulled-pork sandwich called Gratitude, for example, or a conch fritter and shrimp burger called Opportunity — until you learn the stories of the people making the food.
The food truck is staffed by at-risk young men, ages 12 to 19, many of whom have had run-ins with the law, including shoplifting and drug-dealing. They’re part of the Empowered Youth USA program that’s aimed, in part, at building character development and job skills as part of their rehabilitation.
Empowered Youth executive director Colleen Adams came up with the idea for Vibe 305 after her program’s participants were having difficulty landing jobs at fast-food restaurants.
“I was losing a lot of kids back to the street because they needed money,” Adams said. So she created jobs for them.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The truck is about to celebrate its first anniversary, roving the streets of Miami and serving comfort-food treats like fish tacos, burgers and crab cakes; add a Coke to your order and you’re not likely to need more than $10.
Vibe 305 has been such a success — it now employs a rotating, 15-person crew, making mostly minimum wage — that Empowered Youth is expanding the food truck into a permanent home at 20 NE 29th St. in Wynwood. Adams said she hopes to be able to give more young men jobs as bussers, servers, cooks and managers at the Wynwood location, which will feature portable food trailers.
The restaurant will have a focus on seafood — “something like a crab shack,” she said. To continue the mission of youth empowerment, the group wants to tap local arts and music programs to provide entertainment at the venue.
Empowered Youth will lease the restaurant space from Miami-Dade County, Adams said. She is seeking contributions of about $100,000 to kickstart construction costs and the young men’s salaries.
“We need community support,” she said. “And supporting these kids really means supporting the community.”
Adams said their goal is to have a soft opening during Art Basel next month and be fully operational by the end of the year.
Ronnie Vincent is a chef at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach who spends time helping out on the truck and teaching the Vibe 305 teens cooking skills.
“I came from the bottom,” said Vincent, who grew up in Miami. “I’ve been in the situation that they’ve been in. I understand what it’s like to have someone tell you you’ll never be something, and I feel that I worked very hard to get where I’m at. I could be a good influence to these kids.”
Another good influence: Alex Velasquez. The Little Havana 19-year-old completed the Empowered Youth program in 2009 and now serves as a program mentor and a Vibe 305 manager.
“I get to talk to them at a more personal level about what they struggle with and how I can help them,” he said. “So far all of them have opened up to me, but we’re not sugarcoating anything.”
Velasquez graduated from Miami Senior High and is starting Miami Dade College in January. He plans to study business and hospitality management.
Jesus Mendoza, 16, started Empowered Youth a year ago upon a court-ordered referral. He’s still in training on the truck, prepping food and taking orders. Due in part to his dedication to the program, his probation has been shortened, Adams said.
“The track I was on, it was really bad,” Mendoza said. “Without Empowered Youth, I might have ended up dead or in jail. But with Empowered Youth, I might become someone.”
Contact Carla Javier at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @carlamjavier.
How to help
Find out more about Empowered Youth’s programs and how to contribute at empoweredyouthusa.org.
Tuesday nights: The Stage, 170 NE 38th St.
Wednesday lunches: Dade Family Counseling, 4343 W. Flagler St.
Friday lunches: University of Miami.
Follow Vibe 305’s tweets for the food truck’s latest location, menu updates and more.