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This restaurant gives hope to those in recovery, one shift at a time

2 days ago 17

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The plate that landed on the table at Community Matters Cafe was immediately striking. Two offset pancakes, golden from corn, topped with pulled pork and a sunny-side-up egg, all connected with drizzles of a red glaze that appeared to be applied by an aspiring Rembrandt.

As per norm, I rotated the plate to look at it from all angles and discern which was the dish’s best side. Then I aimed my phone at what the menu called Pulled Pork Johnny Cakes and started moving the plate around for the best light.

“You’re taking a picture?!” A woman stepped to the table beside me wearing a staff T-shirt from this nonprofit restaurant, which was established to provide training to people fighting addiction and trying to gain some footing to take a place in the workforce.

She said it with a degree of shock that might have left me embarrassed if she knew that my camera roll contained thousands of such photos. But she also said it with a degree of delight.

“It’s gorgeous!” I told her, to which she beamed and scrunched her shoulders together in an unmistakable look of pride. Without another word, she pivoted around, pushed open the double swinging doors to the kitchen and skipped through them.

The entire exchange took 10 seconds, so fast I didn’t get her name or a chance to ask a follow-up question. But I had a strong feeling that I had just encountered that aspiring Rembrandt.

You could be forgiven if you walked into Community Matters Cafe and never picked up on the fact that something bigger is going on here. In fact, chef Chayil Johnson would take that as a high compliment. The cafe is a project of Charlotte’s Central Rescue Mission and sits next to the organization’s facility for men (a women’s campus is about two miles away) and in the shadow of the city’s NFL stadium. Signs in the parking lot warn potential tailgaters that there is to be absolutely no alcohol consumption on the premises, in deference to the residents there working hard to break that very dependence.

The Mission provides addiction rehab to anyone older than 18 who checks themselves in. The program lasts four months and is followed by a choice of follow-up programs to help soften reentry to the real world. One of those is a six-month stint working in the cafe.

At first, I presume that the idea is to prepare people to work in the hospitality industry. But it quickly becomes clear that the goal is to prepare them to work … anywhere.

“This is a life-skills curriculum disguised as a restaurant,” outgoing chief executive Tony Marciano says.

The cafe, with its industrial revival aesthetic in a historic red-brick building, boasts a gleaming kitchen that was put together mostly through donations of equipment from area hotels. Its breakfast-lunch menu would satisfy any well-fed urban hipster. An Instagram scene awaits at every turn. All the ingredients for a buzzy spot.

But its objective transcends trendy sustenance. The real mission is saving lives.

That sounds like hyperbole. But then Johnson shows me pictures on the wall of groups who were among the first graduate classes five years ago. He lights up with all the success stories, which is most of them, but then at least once per photo, he gets to a person, says their name and winces a little. I don’t ask. I can tell how that story ended.

Yusmari Cruz, 42, who graduated the program last year after decades of dependence, tells me that 17 people she knows have died of drug-related causes in the past two years. I assume I misheard and ask her to repeat.

Seventeen people. In two years.

I gasp. Cruz’s story transforms the hyperbole into the tangible.

Everyone I talk to at the cafe — some graduates, some employees, some who are both — has a story of loss. But their stories include gratitude that they’ve earned the chance to tell those stories.

In the stories from several graduates, patterns emerge. There’s a lot of talk about having “hit rock bottom.” Several recount an intervention from family and/or friends that encouraged them to seek help. “They met me where I was” is said more than once.

The looks in their eyes express resolve and reservation: You can tell they’re in a good place right now — and that they know how tenuous that might be.

If they look close, they might sense something similar in my eyes. A quarter-century ago, one of my best friends succumbed to addiction, and that loss is with me every day. Part of me wants to ask very hard questions in an effort to better understand what happened to my friend, but it becomes a delicate dance in which I never want to push someone to answer a question that becomes a trigger. So I ask questions, and I meet the answers where they are, even if they rarely go as deep as I hope.

Then I meet Chris Carmack.

Carmack, 33, completed the program last year. He walks into our meeting looking like he was the star quarterback at an elite prep school not too long ago and is heading out to give an inspirational speech to a youth group.

He was not a quarterback. Did not go to an elite prep school. He probably could speak to a youth group, but that’s not happening today, either.

He tells me he grew up in western North Carolina and started to become addicted to meth and fentanyl at age 12. He spent most of the next 18 years addicted and unhoused. He made occasional attempts to break the dependence, but they never took; or maybe it just wasn’t the right place at the right time. Maybe rock bottom is a moving target.

Then some of his friends died, and his older brother died. That was the loudest wake-up call yet, and it set off another round of looking for help, but even then it didn’t come easy. After cycling through a couple more programs, he learned about the Rescue Mission in Charlotte while sitting at a bus stop in Hendersonville outside his probation office. A recovery ministry drove him the two hours to Charlotte.

He says he arrived at the campus with “no home, no teeth, no hope and no future.” (Johnson says that’s an exaggeration: He says Carmack had three teeth.)

After going through the rehab program, he chose to work at the cafe. At first, he says, he was scared of everyone and everything, like a wild animal. But in the cafe, while he learned to wash dishes and prep vegetables and bus tables, he also learned how to be around people, to take direction, to take praise.

It’s been about two years since he took that ride to Charlotte, and he’s now in the Mission’s aftercare program. He has a job at Hope Homes Recovery Resources in Charlotte, working as a recovery specialist. He helps people who are fighting the same battles he was fighting not that long ago. He says he can often see his past in them. And if it all works out right, they can see their future in him.

The credit for every success story at Charlotte’s Central Rescue Mission — and not everyone succeeds — has to go directly to the person themselves. They had to decide it was time; they had to do the work; they had to slay the demons and ignore the temptations. Still, each person I talk to defers to any number of entities for their success, some spiritual, some terrestrial. As if they are just the fortunate recipient of luck that rained down at just the right moment. Maybe that’s part of it, but none of it happens without the effort they put in.

But there are people providing them the tools for that success. And one that everyone singles out is “chef.”

Johnson, 27, grew up in New Orleans — a fact evident throughout the menu — and started cooking in an arts school there when he was 13. Emeril Lagasse helped fund the program, and Johnson took quickly to the militaristic discipline. He worked events as part of Lagasse’s team and earned a college scholarship from him.

Now that he’s in charge of his own kitchen, he knows all eyes are on him, and he leads with compassion.

“Everything I say and do affects the students,” he said. So tempers are kept even. There’s no swearing. Any mistake is seen foremost as a teaching opportunity.

“My dad taught me to walk in a room and be a thermostat and not a thermometer,” he said. (Dad seems to have taken cues from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) “Whenever I come into this room [the cafe], I’m going to come in with joy, and I’m going to work as hard as I can.”

He also has the backs of those students, something that might be new to most of them. The cafe doesn’t serve alcohol — seems obvious, right? — but one morning, a group of brunching ladies refused to abide by that seemingly simple program and smuggled in canned mimosas. Johnson called them out, then kicked them out.

Unlike in the kitchen, “I might have used profanity a little bit,” Johnson says, feigning embarrassment.

Johnson said what really got to him was what one of the women said as he was escorting them to the exit: “Is it really that big a deal?”

Yes. As a matter of fact — and a matter of life and death — it sure is.

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