11 Questions with Teresa Goines, Founder & CEO of Old Skool Cafe

Teresa Goines, Old Skool Cafe

In Bayview/Hunter’s Point, there’s a restaurant that will forever change the way you think about dining out. It’s called Old Skool Cafe and it’s a youth-run supper club where you can get delicious international soul food like fried chicken and West African peanut stew, listen to live jazz, and help break the cycle of youth incarceration all at the same time.

Old Skool Cafe was the brainchild of Teresa Goines, who wanted to find a solution to the devastating problem of incarceration and hopelessness amongst our children. She knew the best way to do that was by creating a community and jobs, which she did by opening her restaurant. And it worked. The recidivism rate for youth at Old Skool Cafe is 10 percent. Compare that to the national average of 76 percent and you’ll realize that what Teresa Goines is doing is pretty amazing.

That’s why we had to sit down with Teresa to find out her story, why she loves her job, and what she does when she has a minute to herself. Read on to be inspired. And then make a reservation to dine at Old Skool Cafe where the food nourishes the body and the soul.

What inspired you to open Old Skool Cafe?

I was a corrections officer in Southern California and I was trying to solve the problem of recidivism with our youth. It was a revolving door and it seemed so hard for them to break out of the cycle of incarceration. They’d get out and come right back. I started talking with them and asked, “What do you think it would take for you to really have the life that you dream of?

They said, “Well we go back, but no one will hire us because we have a felony,” which I understood because I ran a gang prevention program and I’d try to help youth get jobs. If you don’t know how to handle yourself in an interview, don’t have work experience, and are coming out of jail, no one wants to hire you. So I started thinking that if no one was going to hire these people—one of the keys to helping them break out of this cycle of violent incarceration, crime, and death—I had to figure out a way to get them hired.

There was another piece though—gangs offered these kids a second family. For a lot of them coming out of foster care or traumatic abusive situations at home, to have a bunch of guys rally around them and say, “We’ve got your back and we’re going to take care of you,” felt really good. I realized it wasn’t just a job they needed, but also a sense of community and family.

The third thing was that I had all of these talented kids in the system and they were only known for what they did wrong. There was never a platform for them to show what was right about them, their gifts, and what made them special and unique.

As I started thinking about what kind of jobs would be good, I realized some of the most transferable jobs are in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Little towns and big cities all have restaurants and cafes, but if you try to get a job at a restaurant or café and you don’t have experience, it can be very hard. That’s the first thing they want to know. Have you been a server? Have you washed dishes? Have you been a cook?

I thought, what if I did a youth-run restaurant where we employed them in all aspects of the business, so they could beef up their resume from hostessing to serving to dishwashing to cooking to giving them a venue to showcase their talents and get paid for it. The concept really came out of a desire to solve the problem of losing our kids to prison and death.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you were trying to get Old Skool Cafe up and running?

I didn’t really have restaurant or business experience, so I started out in my apartment in San Francisco. I did pop-ups at the salsa club Kokomos because my friends owned it, so they let me have big gala events and trainings there when they were closed.

I reached out to Delancey Street and different friends who had worked at restaurants to come and help do the training and had one of the chefs make the food and let the kids join in. We had a few trainings, held some auditions to find youth talent, and went for it. We did pilot after pilot until we had a large following and people started asking, “When are you going to open?” and we said, “When we get the money!”

Entertainment is a big part of the restaurant and it’s all provided by youth. Can you tell us more about that?

The entertainment aspect came out of the desire to give youth who hadn’t had a stage that opportunity. We decided to open entertainment up to youth that are at-risk and youth that are not at-risk because I think it’s neat for different worlds to interact—sometimes our economic upbringing keeps people from getting to know others who grew up differently than them, and I think that’s powerful for people who come from more support and privilege and those that don’t.

I also wanted to give young people across the board an avenue to showcase their talent and to potentially become professional musicians. Once you’re paid to perform, you can put “professional musician” on your resume, and it’s great for them to have the chance to perform and hone their talent. Plus, two of our youth have gone on to be on The Voice!

What is the most rewarding thing about your job?

One of my phrases is that we’re all about moving them from surviving to thriving. Seeing young people who felt disconnected and valueless begin to thrive and laugh, smile, hug, love and be excited to wake up and be alive, versus surviving day-to-day, is the reason we’re here. That’s what makes all the hard work worth it.

What is the most difficult thing about your job?

The stress of actually running the business is  hard. I want to keep the doors open because it’s working and changing lives. Trying to figure out how to make sure we have enough customers to make the business work and the youth employed is challenging.

The other hard part is that every person has to go on their own journey. A lot of us are hard-headed and when you’ve been through a lot of painful things, change doesn’t happen overnight. Watching kids you love make choices you know are going to be hurtful is hard, but it’s part of their journey. You have to sometimes make bad decisions and fail and fall before you’re ready to change.

It’s hard to see those who are not ready to change making poor choices, but the good thing is that we’re about sticking with them for the long haul, so we’ve had some youth come back a year or two later who are ready and then we see them thrive. But it is always painful when you see people you love making poor choices.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Getting time to veg—curling up with one of my favorite shows, a blanket, and a glass of wine.

What’s always in your fridge at home?

Creamer for my coffee. I may not have food but I always have creamer for my coffee.

If the next meal were the last meal of your life, what would it be?

A hot, freshly baked cinnamon roll with icing, and a cup of coffee.

What is your motto?

If we extend hope, love, and opportunities to young people who have none, we’ll be amazed at how easy it is to turn around some of the seemingly unsolvable problems in our society.

What keeps you up at night?

It’s a mixture of all of the things that go into business and management and taking care of the kids. It’s a challenge to make the business successful and keep our doors open. We’re a nonprofit, so I also worry if I can bring enough fundraising dollars to keep the program thriving.

Also, when situations come up with the kids that are really hard like housing—some of my youth end up homeless and have no place to go. Things like that—problem solving for situations with the youth, and praying for wisdom about what to do.

What’s something you think most people don’t know about Old Skool Cafe?

I think people are hungry for community…for a place where they can connect. They come for the food but I think that there’s a longing for connection and that’s one thing we offer. It’s more than just an awesome meal and entertainment; it’s an opportunity to connect into something that’s changing lives but also pulls the community together.

Customers come in and they get to know the youth and they watch the youth grow. It’s like the bar in the show Cheers but a bar that’s doing social good. And I think when people find out about us and come in, that’s an unexpected bonus.

Editor’s Note: Out of the millions of local businesses on Yelp, many are owned by hard-working ladies. To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th and Women’s History Month this March, we’re calling attention to some of the most amazing local shops around the country that are run by women. Old Skool Cafe has been highlighted by the Yelp Reservations team as one of the employee-recommended women-owned businesses. Not only is the food and service incredible but the concept and, most importantly, the woman behind this business is truly inspiring. Do some social good and make a reservation today!