THE NOURISHER: Matt Vernon (MBA ’15)
The restaurant business was hit hard by COVID-19, but the Comal Heritage Food Incubator — a nonprofit restaurant and on-the-job training center that helps immigrant and refugee women open their own food businesses or get jobs in the restaurant industry — had a different challenge in the midst of the pandemic. Comal wanted to keep its trainees learning — and paid — while the restaurant was shut down.
So safety and other trainings were quickly moved online, most in a series of prerecorded videos to accommodate the varied schedules of Comal’s multigenerational students. Donations kept the paychecks coming, and a small number of live Zoom chats kept the restaurant’s community connected.
“The first one was powerful,” says alumnus Matt Vernon, general manager of the restaurant and training center in north Denver. “All the ladies hadn’t seen each other together in almost a month at that point, and there were tears and everybody was excited to see each other. It was a moment of that Comal family feeling, coming back together and saying, ‘We’re still in this together, we’re still here for each other, just a little bit different.’”
The restaurant also supported its employees by ordering extra food and supplies to create a sort of emergency pantry. Sous chef Claire Westcott kept the kitchen open all by herself, cooking up batches of soups from around the world that were sold at Comal on a takeout basis and donated to people in need through the Denver Metro Emergency Food Network.
The nonprofit’s next challenge? Pivoting its business model to fit a new reality where the catering and restaurant businesses its graduates once strived to create are no longer as viable. One answer may be cottage food production, where trainees would scale up recipes from their native cultures to sell in grocery stores or online, perhaps with accompanying how-to videos that would allow viewers to make donations.
“It’s an information-age skill set, to translate the skills and knowledge of these wonderful heritage recipes to teach online,” Vernon says. “They can stay safe at home, produce their own foods and hopefully get into these retailers that are doing well right now.”