Food & Drink

New restaurant in west Coconut Grove has soul food and job training on the menu

Longtime Miami-Dade leader and community activist Thelma Gibson, left, and Lair Hall, treasurer of the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative, attended a preview reception this month for Canteen Cuisine, set to open at 3646 Grand Ave.
Longtime Miami-Dade leader and community activist Thelma Gibson, left, and Lair Hall, treasurer of the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative, attended a preview reception this month for Canteen Cuisine, set to open at 3646 Grand Ave. For the Miami Herald

A restaurant opening soon in west Coconut Grove will have two menus of sorts:

The one for guests will feature soul food with Caribbean flair.

And for the underserved residents of this historically Bahamian neighborhood, Canteen Cuisine will provide food-safety training, employment skills and other programming to help people find and keep restaurant jobs.

Canteen Cuisine, at 3646 Grand Ave., is a restaurant and skills-training program created by the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative with help from the Coral Gables Community Foundation. The restaurant is projected to open to the public in January, but its first group of free community classes begins Oct. 29.

“It’s really amazing because this was an old fish market, really run down, and I never dreamed that this could be converted into something that would be so nice,” Thelma Gibson, the longtime community activist, said at a reception this month at the new space.

Canteen Cuisine, wedged between a Dominican hair salon and a bodega, is located a few doors down from TGHI’s offices in the heart of West Grove. Residents of this 65-block, half-square-mile section of Coconut Grove have long faced poverty, substance abuse and HIV rates among the highest in Miami-Dade County.

“Most people are unemployed or underemployed here in the West Grove,” said Joe King, vice president of operations for the Gibson Initiative and one of Canteen Cuisine’s visionaries, along with organization president Merline Barton and Gibson herself. “We want them to invest and reinvest back into their community and to be functioning with their families.”

The Gibson Initiative has arranged a free, eight-week training program called Passport for Successful Living that includes classes in health, education, life and employment skills, housing and parenting. Vocational staff will use Canteen Cuisine to teach about safe food handling and preparation, first aid, CPR and restaurant operations.

Graduates of the program will go on to work at Canteen Cuisine or find jobs at restaurants or other places where they can put their skills to use (the Gibson Initiative also provides placement help and résumé assistance). Tarpon Bend Raw Bar & Grill in Coral Gables has agreed to hire people who have completed the Passport program.

Once hired, the workers will receive stipends from the Gibson Initiative to go toward bus passes, uniform costs and other incidentals.

So far, about 20 people have signed up for the first Passport program; King said he hopes to get 50 before classes begin. (Call 305-446-1543 or visit tghi-cg.org for more information.)

As the restaurant ramps up, Canteen Cuisine workers and volunteers will be planting edible gardens at the Kroma art gallery on Grand Avenue, Virrick Park and St. Matthew’s Church.

The plots will serve a dual purpose of providing fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables to the restaurant, as well as teaching program participants about gardening and healthy eating. Time spent working the gardens will count toward community-service hours that are required to complete the Passport program.

The idea for Canteen Cuisine, King said, developed from a similar program, Teen Cuisine, that retired Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Tom Petersen started in 1989. Petersen started a modest canteen in a hallway of Miami’s juvenile justice center that employed troubled youth, giving them job training and experience while serving court workers. Petersen also helped set up grocery stores in Miami’s poorest neighborhoods, training mothers on welfare to run them.

“He’s my mentor for how to do community change,” King said of Petersen. “You have to be in the community, live in the community, work in the community. We grew and expanded this into a whole community-market model.”

An after-school food program for teens, where they learn the same vocational skills as the adults, is also in the works.

Carlos Garcia, chairman of the Coral Gables Community Foundation, saw the ongoing renovations at Canteen Cuisine this year and wanted to help.

“We saw the need that they had to try and build this out; we saw the program and what they’re trying to accomplish here. But they were missing one big thing — the kitchen.”

The foundation donated $10,000 for kitchen equipment, including a stainless-steel stove, oven, sinks and a walk-in freezer. Renovations were completed during the summer.

“This is one of the key organizations in this area, supporting the area and supporting the residents,” Garcia said of the Gibson Initiative, which began in 2000. “It’s essential to have this program that’s geared toward the food industry and for people to learn food preparation in a kitchen.”

Added Gibson: “If anybody’s going to make something happen here, we in the community have help to make it happen.”

Caitlin Granfield: granfieldc11@yahoo.com; @CaitWrites305

Thelma Gibson Health Initiative

Information: 305-446-1543 or tghi-cg.org

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