A conversation with Stanfield on Refill Jackson Initiative

Emily Stanfield is president and CEO of the Refill Jackson Initiative, the nonprofit that manages the Refill Café. She is a graduate of Millsaps College and the New School, a private university in New York City. Two months after Refill Café opened, she took a few minutes to reflect on the café and its efforts to provide job training and prepare young people for career opportunities.

How are things going since Refill Café opened?

“Going pretty well. We’re really appreciative of the support of the community. Everyone who supported us before we opened, we see those faces coming in and out. They’re our regulars. But we’re a restraint and we would always appreciate additional business and would love for people to cross Gallatin Street and come visit us on JSU Parkway.”

How many people do you employ right now?

“We have 13 people on staff, seven people who run the restaurant and five on the program side who run the workforce training program. Right now, we have 14 members in our cohort, or training program. The workforce training program we have, the participants, are on site, learning job skills and putting those to work in the Refill Café. The whole purpose of the nonprofit is to train these young people. Our first cohort began on July 29 and graduated October 4, and our second cohort started on October 7, and they are slated to graduate December 20, right before Christmas.”

What happens when they graduate?

“They can take advantage of three avenues for continued engagement with us, and we hope they do all three. The first is a paid internship. We have relationships with businesses across the city and we try to match those businesses with our graduates, based on our graduates’ interests, to work a paid internship … After that, they’ll go onto full time employment with the company, if the company can take them on, or they can come back to us and we’ll help them apply for jobs. Coupled with that is further education and training. A lot our students have dropped out of school, so we get them into tutoring or other educational programs to help them get their high school equivalency. If they have their high school equivalency, we can work to get our graduates into a community college or trade school.” 

What sort of internships have you helped cohort participants get?

“We had one graduate in the last cohort go into a fleet detailing company, where they detail ambulances for hospitals, and one who went to work for a church, because he was interested in culinary and they had a big commercial kitchen that fees people. We work with businesses to take them on, but we pay for up to 480 hours of wages and benefits. We receive federal grants to help with that.”

So, Refill Café isn’t necessarily trying to train people to go into the restaurant business, then?

“Exactly. Some people might want to do that – it can be a good career that pays well. The reason we picked the restaurant environment is because it’s a good first job. My first job was in a retail store, but I know a lot of people whose first jobs were at a pizza shop or ice cream place. In this job, you interact with customers and do a whole range of things: cleaning, cooking, serving the public. It’s a good first experience. Our board also wanted to have a restaurant to bring revitalization to the West Jackson community. We are located in a coffee house that closed a few years ago. Shortly after that, an upscale dining establishment near Jackson State University closed. Making this a vibrant restaurant in West Jackson was a secondary goal of what we’re trying to do.”

Do you think Refill Café is too far out of the way for people to come for lunch?

“Our business is pretty steady and I’m kind of happy with it. We do see regulars coming in, people getting to-go orders. A lot of businesses are supporting us by reserving our private room, which seats 15 to 18 people. We also have birthday parties here. It’s very helpful that businesses have embraced us.”

Do you have a set menu, or does it change regularly?

“We have a set menu; we are a salad and sandwich place, but we have specials every day. I know Tuesdays are pepper steak days; Wednesday is “low carb Wednesday,” so the chef gets to pick out what it is. Monday is red beans and rice day. Friday is hamburgers, and Thursday is baked chicken.”

How long will the current menu be in place?

“I think it will be in place for the foreseeable future. We worked closely with a corporate chef at U.S. Foods, who helps restaurants develop menus. She very quickly understood what we needed to do to. We were trying to satisfy Jacksonians, while also embracing healthy, delicious menu options. But we had people that were coming in who never cooked before, and we wanted to make the menus assessible to them.”

What is the most popular menu item?

“I was actually looking at this the other day. The turkey chopped salad is really popular. That’s what I get every time. We have a power bowl that is popular. It has a base of rice and quinoa, but we throw in a lot of vegetables and you can add a meat or protein of your choice. We’re really proud of that one.”

When will your next cohort come in?

“Mid-January. We haven’t decided the exact date, because we’ll need a couple of weeks for recruitment. We are closed from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.”

Will Refill stay open in between cohorts?

“The restaurant is open 50 weeks out of the year. We’re closed the week of Christmas and the week of July 4, because those are dead in the restaurant business. The rest of the year, we are open, whether we have members training or not. That’s why we have professional staff to run the care and serve as trainers for our participants.”

How many graduated from the first class? And how many are expected to graduate from the current one?

“With the first cohort, we had to test our program model. We had three people graduate out of 10. This time, we have 14. We’re in our fourth week and about 60 percent are expected to graduate.”

Is that a low number? And what is the reason behind people not graduating?

“Thirty percent in the first cohort was low, but other workforce development programs around the country see a graduation rate of about 50 percent. There are a number of barriers. For the fist cohort, it was about transportation. We have a strict attendance and punctuality policy, so we had to dismiss some because they were not able to get here on time or missed too many classes. Four were dismissed because of that; one was dismissed for unprofessional behavior and two withdrew.”

Is there anything Refill can do to help alleviate transportation issues?

“A lot of students are putting together complicated puzzles to get them where they need to go. We had a young man who graduated, who rode a bike and took a bus to get here. Others are getting rides from family members and friends. Sometimes, that was unreliable and led to absences and tardies. We do try to alleviate that as much as we can with bus passes and gas cards. Just because you have a ride from a family member, it doesn’t mean he/she is taking you for free. You might have to pay for their gas for a week. We are also looking into transportation we can more easily control, by getting our own van and figuring out how we can use it to get participants to training and to internships.”

What is the attendance policy?

“It’s changed from the first to second cohort. The first cohort, it was no more than three absences or tardies. Now, it’s no more than six tardies. Our program stats at 8:15, if you get here at 8:16, you’re tardy. We try to instill in our participants that if you’re on time, you’re late.”

If someone is kicked out of the program, can they come back?

“Yes; it depends on what they’re dismissed for. If you missed four times and want to re-enroll, we would consider taking you back. It also depends on the demand (for slots). If 15 people are wanting to come in, we have to weigh whether it makes sense for you to be readmitted.”

How is the program funded?

“A range of sources. We have a diverse portfolio of funding Our seed funder and biggest supporter is the Kellogg Foundation. We get lots of donations from private individuals, ranging from people who give $25 a month to people who give $100,000 a year.”

What is your annual budget?

“About $1.4 million to $1.5 million. We budget based on the assumption that everyone who enrolls is going to graduate.”

Is the restaurant profitable? Is that one of the initiative’s goals?

“That’s a difficult question, because are this hybrid, social enterprise model. Most of the restaurant expenses are covered by grants and donations. While the staff makes the food, they’re also training, so wages are covered by grants. The restaurant will never make a profit, because we’re only open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.”

Do trainees get paid?

“They do. This cohort can make up to $1,775 each. If they stay the whole 10 weeks, they can make up to $1,250. Any amount they save up to $500, we will match dollar-for-dollar, so they can get an additional $500.”

For more information, log onto refilljackson.org.

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