Keri Chentfant, an English Language Arts seventh-grade teacher is one of the regulars at a hot new dining spot at Lackawanna High School run by five special needs students.
“This is the best group of workers we’ve got right here,” said Chentfant, who favors the healthy breakfast wraps and lunch specials at The Lunch Box Garden Fresh Cafe, tucked into a former faculty lounge alongside the school cafeteria.
The cafe, which opened in October and serves breakfast or lunch five days a week, is teaching its operators a lot about running a business – and then some.
“We thought at first is was going to be real life experiences – exchanging money, making change, serving customers, making eye contact, communicating – but it ended up being so much more,” high school life skills teacher Jen Willats said.
Willats helps her students run The Lunch Box, which serves healthy breakfast wraps and sandwiches, fruit cups and salads, yogurt, granola and more.
Lackawanna school district-community liaison Judy Faircloth helped Willats connect with Jennifer Tynan, school coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County, which helped set up the cafe by providing $2,500 worth of appliances from a Creating Healthy Schools and Communities grant. The grant program is helping residents in Lackawanna and Niagara Falls improve access to healthier foods.
Willats came prepared for her new duties with the right background. Her parents, Todd and Charlene Brosius, own The Clubhouse restaurant in Wheatfield. She used to work at Olympia restaurant nearby during college.
“The teachers are our most popular customers,” said Willats, who has worked in the Lackawanna middle-senior high building for 16 years, holding a similar job in the middle school until moving to the high school two years ago.
“Some students come over here for a side salad or soup,” she said. “They also love smoothies. We’ve had some of the administrators and secretaries come from McKinley High School and get take-out. I don’t know how we’re going to do this but Martin Road Elementary School is right down the road and they want to get take-out.
Willats’ cafe charges include Christopher Stevens, 15, a sophomore who has set up a record-keeping system for the cafe and handles the checkout counter; Abdullah Yossif, 16, a sophomore who delivers cafe take-out to customers around the school; and Anhar Muflahi, 16, a junior and one of three teen girls who help make and assemble breakfasts, lunches and snacks.
“It’s nice,” Muflahi said shyly.
Hannah Nashir, an English as a New Language teacher at Lackawanna Middle School, is another cafe regular. She remembers teaching some of the students who run the cafe when they were in preschool.
“Everything’s healthy and affordable,” she said of the offerings. “That’s a good package. Plus everybody’s friendly.”
Snacks costs about $1, breakfast foods a couple or $3 and lunch combos $5.
Willats said the experience has given her students more confidence, and opened the eyes – and hearts – of students and staff across the two-school complex.
“Fellow students are having genuine conversations with the kids. It’s never happened before,” she said. “They used to pass them in the hall and people thought, ‘Oh, it’s Mrs. Willats’ class.’ Now, they give them high fives and ask, ‘How are you today?’
“The students have all come out of their shells. They each have their own specialty, which we didn’t predict would happen. A couple of the girls are really, really good with cooking on the skillet. Two of them can crack an egg with one hand now. One is in charge of all the beverages. She memorizes some of the faces that come in here and when Mr. (David) Staniszewski walks in for coffee, she gets his two Splendas and cream. Some of them have a difficult time remembering spelling words and their address, so remembering someone’s face and what they take is really something else.”
The cafe has yet to turn a profit but Willats and her students see that possibility coming.
“We charge basically what it costs for the ingredients. We’ll stock up on things when we can get coupons,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of support from the teachers and the security guards and the guidance counselors. They’ve donated gift cards to Wegmans for stuff. Some of the students and a lot of the teachers ask if the students are allowed to take tips, so Christopher will write “Tip, $1” at the bottom of the receipt and we total it up. We figure at the end of the year we’ll go out to a nice restaurant ourselves.”
Here’s what else Willats had to say during a recent interview at the cafe:
Q. Who tends to ask for deliveries?
A lot of the teachers. They only get a half-hour for their lunch, so I think it’s become very convenient for them. We make a list every morning. Christopher and Abdullah will make Post-its and they have them all organized, so we have them in order. We have to-go boxes. Abdullah is nonverbal, so we have to think out of the box to get him to make more eye contact and communicate more. He has a lot of little odd jobs. He likes to do our menu boards. There’s really a job for everybody in here.
Q. Are there any other special services besides deliveries?
We have gift certificates. The kids made them on the computer and laminated them. Since Christmas is coming, a lot of students have asked if they could buy gift certificates for their teachers. We have smoothie ones, coffee ones or $1, $5 or $10 certificates. We have teacher tabs hanging on the back wall. Teachers will come in and put $20 into their accounts and Christopher deducts it every time they place an order. He also has in his little chart IOU cards. A lot of teachers don’t carry cash.
We do a fun newsletter. We found this template online. Some of the teachers have started a tab for students who don’t have any extra money and are hungry.
Q. How do keep track of the food?
Whatever money we make today we’ll use to buy product tomorrow. Christopher developed a log. Everyday he has his receipts and highlights what the customers get. The kids total it at the end of the day and put them in order. Then we’re able to figure out what’s possible. We also keep a log of how many customers we have, how much money we make each day. Chris came up with the idea to give a gift certificate to the 500th customer. Within the month of December, we should have our 1,000th.
A lot of the kids are interested in working at a Tim Hortons. Chris wants to work at McDonald’s. When I was in the middle school, I had the same students and we did as much as we could in a classroom. A lot of them wouldn’t leave the room. They were very shy. Now it’s fun to see. Chris takes to-go orders. He operates our computer. We do recycling once a week and I can send him off with that. He does everything.
Q. What are your plans for the future?
We’re open on Fridays now. If we could get more appliances in here, we probably could do lunch every day. That would be nice. We have uniforms – shirts that are in the dryer right now – and one of the teachers has offered to embroider the kids’ names on them with a little Lunch Box symbol. The art classes are going to do some artwork for in here. We also have PTECH (college prep) study hall students who have asked if they can volunteer. When we get a rush, students will come and help out at some of the stations. I think it would be nice to get more kids involved.
The kids are taking desktop publishing and next quarter they’re supposed to take a website course so we’re thinking about designing a website in the future. We could do orders through there. Right now, I’m checking my phone.
Mr. (Omer) Bitar dropped off a Grow Pot yesterday and there’s a couple more in our room. A Grow Pot is where you can grow your own lettuce, tomatoes and other produce.
Q. Your students seem to really enjoy this.
At the end of the day, they’ll ask, “Did we do science and social studies and English and math?” I’ll say, “Yes, but this is how we did it.”