Husband and wife pair utilize restaurant’s resources to fuel community revival and nonprofit vocational program.
By: Neil Strebig
Doug Phillips sits at the middle high top table, smiling as he dives in for another bite of his grilled turkey Rueben. In between bites he talks about his family with Michael Blackwell, who informs “Brother Doug” that the vegetable lasagna he asked for is finished.
For Phillips, Café on the Corner is a one-stop destination for lunch, dinner and a side of wholesome conversation with a neighbor.
“It’s really nice having a restaurant in the community,” said Phillips, a Brightwood native since 2001. He’s been enjoying Café on the Corner since their opening in August of 2014.
The Café, which is owned and operated by Michael and Lateresa Blackwell, originally started as an answer to a problem.
2700 Shadeland Avenue was first home to the nuisance bar, Home Plate Bar. The establishment was shut down and purchased by the nearby, New Hope Church, which the Blackwells are members of. Home Plate Bar was replaced by the ambitious business venture, Café ‘n’ Creamery. However, selling gelato and espresso, “wasn’t [for] this type of community,” according to Lateresa.
Shortly after Café ‘n’ Creamery closed the Blackwells – equipped with an understanding of what they believed the Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood needed – began to help clean up the building and eventually as Lateresa puts it “jumped in.”
“We felt this space was so vital to the continued growth of our community,” said Lateresa.
The couple submitted their business proposal to The New Hope for Neighborhood Renewal and within months they were officially open. However, the Café on the Corner of 2014 has evolved slightly since that grand opening.
“It’s all to do with community,” said Michael. “The concept my wife and I came up with is why do they [residents] have to go to Squirrel Hill, South Hills or North Hills to enjoy a beautiful place to dine when they can just walk out their back door and enjoy a very good meal?”
The restaurant has continued that collective approach, but within the last year, the Blackwells have also begun working on a nonprofit extension of the restaurant, Kitchen of Grace.
“We’re empowering the young people to have a voice and bring forth their ideas,” said Lateresa in regard to Kitchen of Grace.
“In order to keep what I have, I have to give it away.” — Michael Blackwell
The Blackwells will be completing a newly refurbished kitchen space next to their Café on the Corner property at the end of this month. The space will be home to Kitchen of Grace, a 12-week program designed to empower young residents through the hospitality industry.
They decided to utilize hospitality as an entry point for the nonprofit undertaking due to the “selfless” nature of the industry. It requires a person to “give one’s self up” for service and the benefit of others, according to Lateresa.
The program selects four young adults who will go through the three management tiers of the curriculum: catering, entrepreneurial and event management. Each tier will be taught and supervised by the Blackwells, their goal is to help the students understand the value of hospitality work while also empowering them with the tools and skills to be successful in whichever professional field they decide to peruse.
The application process is online and is open to residents city-wide. According to the Blackwells, they are not selecting anyone based on race or socioeconomic backgrounds. The main intangibles they are looking for in applicants is a “passion” and drive to better oneself. Their goal with the program is to improve the lives of those involved.
“Even though society may call them ‘at-risk,’ we see potential,” said Lateresa.
Recently, Kitchen of Grace had three students complete a run through the program. The beta-class consisted of Brighton Heights residents, Kianna Copeland, 16, and Brianna Kline-Costa, 16, along with 18-year-old Brightwood resident Javon Johnson.The trio worked with the Blackwells at Café on the Corner catering events, designing potential business plans and organizing community events. The group oversaw the creation of this past October’s Halloween event, ‘Truck-or-Treat.’
“The biggest thing I took away wasn’t the restaurant work but the community work,” said Kline-Costa.
The Blackwells are also helping the group find new jobs in the service industry along with aiding in the cost of college tuition and books, according to Copeland and Kline-Costa. All three cited the significance of this program and how it has helped them mature as individuals and professionals.
The Blackwells were adamant about the necessity of this venture and the need for an outlet like this within the community. The concept of paying-it-forward comes naturally to them and they believe in the power of opportunities like this.
After all, Michael got his start as a chef back in the 1970s when he was working at the Allegheny Club in Three Rivers Stadium. The then-executive chef Gerald Lawrence saw the passion and pride he had in his work and offered him a promotion from steward to chef.
“An opportunity that changed my life,” said Michael.
That fortuitous chance gave Michael “a profession.” Something he has always valued and carried with him. It’s a large reason as to why he believes he can “qualify” with the youth in the neighborhood and potential students within the Kitchen of Grace program.
“I was fifteen and I was a knucklehead as well and someone took a chance on me. And I’m willing to take a chance on you,” said Michael in regards to connecting with local youth.
It’s that mentality – that heartbeat – that fuels both Café on the Corner and Kitchen of Grace.
“In order to keep what I have, I have to give it away,” said Michael. “I know the importance of feeding them healthy thoughts, healthy ideas and letting them know that they are more than that what they see and there is something inside of them dying to come out. And if I can help point them in that direction, that is my paycheck for the day.”
Café on the Corner is open Monday thru Friday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call (412) 415-3672 or visit their website.
The Local Marketplace Section is supported by PNC Community Development Banking with funding from the PNC Foundation.