Insights / This Brooklyn Restaurant Has a Brilliant Model for Hiring and Supporting Immigrant Workers
This Brooklyn Restaurant Has a Brilliant Model for Hiring and Supporting Immigrant Workers

At Emma’s Torch, an unassuming restaurant in a leafy Brooklyn neighborhood, the New American menu has a decidedly global profile. Alongside familiar staples such as strawberry pecan waffles and avocado toast, diners here are bound to stumble across tastes from around the world — Zanzibar curry, jerk vinaigrette, palm-coconut rice. The eclectic fusion befits a restaurant that is perpetually training refugees and asylees (from 31 countries and counting) to become professional back of house staffers.

More than merely a trendy brunch nook, Emma’s Torch is a 501(c)(3) social enterprise. It offers two months of paid training to any forced migrant — complete with English classes, interviews, professional development — followed by job placement that lands a graduate with a partnered restaurant. The Carroll Gardens location, as well as the cafe at the Brooklyn Public Library, serve as places for students to gain professional kitchen experience on their way to jobs in New York restaurants. Proceeds from the two establishments go back into serving that mission.

Weekend diners come for the rich shakshuka and the decadent bread pudding, as well as the feel-good knowledge that they’re supporting a worthy cause. The students gain real-world training and a sense of community in their adopted home country. (New American cuisine, indeed.) And just maybe, restaurant operators beyond New York can take a note from the success of an outfit that develops ambitious immigrants into industry pros. As restaurants struggle to hire and retain workers — and as the United States steps up admissions of refugees from Afghanistan and other lands — the model that Emma’s Torch has honed in Brooklyn appears as practical as it is inspiring.

Started in 2015 by Kerry Brodie, a descendent of Holocaust survivors who mused about starting an eatery that doubled as a classroom, Emma’s Torch has placed 96% of job-seeking graduates into culinary positions. Graduates have moved out of homeless shelters, been able to bring spouses and children to the United States, and become more empowered in their careers.

These graduates include professionals such as Thu Pham, who created a Vietnamese pizza for James Beard-recognized restaurant Olmstead, and Naseema Bachsi, of Afghanistan, who is now the head chef at Sahadi’s, New York’s storied Middle Eastern grocery. “We always get excited when we get an email from Emma’s Torch on prospective candidates,” Sahadi’s commented in an email. “We’re looking forward [to working with them] for years to come.”

We talked to Dr. Kira O’Brien, the Director of Emma’s Torch, to find out more about how the program runs, how migrants and immigrants contribute so much to food and drink, and her hopes for how the restaurant industry can engage and invest in their heavily immigrant workforce.

Training a new generation of restaurant workers

The restaurant and non-profit employ nine permanent staffers — two social workers, a culinary director, and a programming team — who every 10 weeks train a cohort of eight students in a full-time program that pays hourly. The first five weeks is a boot camp of kitchen training, as well as workshops in conflict resolution and communication skills that help empower a professional trajectory. Volunteers come in to conduct mock interviews and offer English language support. The last five weeks bring rotations in actual service positions at the restaurant and/or cafe.

“So by the time someone graduates, even if they didn’t have a culinary background, they’ve got a lot of on-the-ground skills,” O’Brien says. “Not just in terms of technical ability of knife cuts, but understanding clocking in and out and the way you talk to somebody on the line.”

The program's strong partnerships with resettlement and social service agencies, and referrals from those who’ve gone through the program, help build the pipeline for new students. “It’s an important reminder that this city is just made up of migrants,” O’Brien says. “It’s such a huge part of the fabric of who we are that this work is not possible to do alone. It has to be done in community, in collaboration with different agencies, with different organizations and restaurants.”

Emma’s Torch works with anyone who considers themselves a forced migrant, a category that includes refugees, asylum seekers, and people who have been trafficked. Their curriculum is generally built for beginners, but they also take students with more experience. “You’re talking about people that are not just unemployed, but underemployed — people who have not had the opportunity to move forward in their career due to being sold short,” O’Brien says. “Given a little additional advocacy, support, and language skills, we can really help them go to the next level, and not stop here. We’re looking at those larger trajectories.”

The program support doesn’t stop once a student graduates. Emma’s Torch only places students in restaurants that they already have a relationship with. With individualized mentorship and tailored career readiness support following after, the bigger goal is to help the graduates begin new independent lives with upward mobility.There is a preliminary screening process for applicants, to confirm that the person is interested in food and can clear a language level to be able to safely operate in the kitchen. “What’s nice about being rooted in community organizations is that if somebody comes to us and we don’t think their language skills are quite where they need to be, we’ll refer them to our partner at, say, Riverside Language,” O’Brien says. “And they’ll know that when they’re done, they have a seat with us.”

What refugees and immigrants bring to the restaurant industry

O’Brien emphasizes that it’s not about giving migrants a charitable hand, or giving them a chance more than anyone else, but giving them an equal chance to succeed and recognizing their inherent value in the restaurant industry.

“I’m so grateful to do this work because I’m around students who are dedicated beyond anything I could imagine. If somebody is learning English while also learning the aspects of your restaurant, they’re doubly invested in the learning,” O’Brien says. “If you invest in this person, who has made unimaginable sacrifices to get here, and you’re able to create a reciprocal relationship where everyone is growing and thriving, think about the value on your team.”

There are some misconceptions about hiring refugees and asylum seekers. While some restaurant owners get intimidated by the legality of it, in reality, hiring them is the same hiring process as anyone else. And by providing a sense of stability for those whose lives are unstable and uncertain, they are able to build networks and think about the future with more ambition.

How restaurant owners can welcome migrants 

The pandemic has laid bare many of the staffing hurdles that all workers face, making managers more aware than ever of the difficulties people face in simply making it to work. But O’Brien notes that migrant workers may need particular help in areas such as childcare, which is a challenge for anyone lacking resources or local networks. Having reasonable and regular hours, with a set work schedule, instead of constantly rotating, can be a help to working parents. O’Brien also hopes that restaurants can be more inclusive in their hiring practices — like giving a new English speaker some grace if the margins on their resume aren’t precisely right.

“My dream for the future of restaurants is for operators to see the inherent value of their immigrant workforce, and spend time in understanding that population more and provide them with more learning opportunities,” O’Brien says. “With that higher level of engagement, their workforce will feel valued and seen. And then there will be less turnover. And that’s the goal right? Everybody is working to create beautiful and amazing food — it’s only easier to do that if everybody’s committed to it and communicating.”

O’Brien is actively looking for more students and also restaurants to partner with. If you’re a New York City restaurant curious about engaging, or want to set up more resources for your own immigrant workers, feel free to email her at kira@emmastorch.org

[Photo by Mateus Maia on Unsplash]

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