Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.
in the Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program’s (KPEP) vocational training, Jen Heath liked coffee, but didn’t buy “fancy espresso drinks.”
Following her KPEP food service training two years ago, Heath, in recovery from a nearly 20-year addiction, was hired as a full-time barista at Walnut & Park cafe, Vine’s newest coffee shop. She not only regularly serves up mochas and Americanos, she is also perfecting her latte art to the delight of her customers.
Heath says KPEP “saved my life.”
“I was heading in a whole different direction,” says Heath. “People who knew me before might not recognize me now.”
Casey Grisolono, KPEP Food Service Director, says she was pleased with Heath’s commitment to the program. “The way she’s turned her life around is amazing,” says Grisolono. “She came through KPEP once before and didn’t do so well. But this time, she made the decision before to do it, and she did.”
KPEP, an innovative, community-based program, operates “residential and non-residential offenders as a community-based alternative to incarceration,” according to its website. KPEP participants may include parolees, probationers, Drug Treatment Court participants and those on pre-trial status, among others. By offering vocational training programs for culinary arts, janitorial, hospitality, and building trades, KPEP invites its students to learn job skills that may help transform their lives.
In 2017, KPEP took a further step in its food service certification program by opening Walnut & Park Cafe, which moved some of the training from the classroom to the coffee shop. The cafe has been so successful that KPEP has plans to open a Kalamazoo diner next spring.
Following training, KPEP, which has residential facilities in Kalamazoo, Benton Harbor and Muskegon, has hired former graduates, like Heath. “This shows we have total faith in our organization, and that we also practice what we preach,” says KPEP Executive Director William DeBoer. “We’re asking local businesses to hire our graduates. And selfishly, our graduates can be fantastic workers.”
In its bakery offerings, Walnut & Park cafe has a wide variety of options, including this Vegan Gluten Free Maple Sweet Potato Muffin.
As part of its program, KPEP also helps its graduates find jobs before they return to their own communities so they don’t have a work gap, which is where support system challenges can typically arise, says Grisolono. “Everyone is able to use us as a job reference,” she adds.
Heath credits KPEP for not only helping her learn skills to make her more employable, but also deal with the stigma of her past addiction and choices. “I gained so much confidence and really learned how to be reliable and dependable,” says Heath. “I fell in love with what I do and I love everyone I work with.”
“A criminal record doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person,” says Grisolono. “Some people get in trouble for crimes and some people don’t. But the stigma can have effects for years afterward.
“This program helps change people’s thinking about what it’s like to live with a criminal past, and raise awareness in the community and world that just because you messed up, doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.”
One local coffee shop helping another
Anyone who visits Walnut & Park is likely to be charmed by its clean, welcoming interior with tasteful art and high ceilings, and its inviting outdoor patio, often shaded during the day by the large trees that line Walnut Street. The cafe also features a small, private boardroom, which can be rented and seats up to five.
The scones and muffins are generously-sized and baked daily. Walnut & Park’s rotating lunch menu consists of locally-sourced food, like the pureed Lemon Asparagus, one of their seasonal soups. Customers often call to ask if certain items, such as the Chicken Pot Pie, are on the menu that week. If they’re not, Grisolono is happy to tell them when they will be next.
In setting up the cafe, DeBoer sought advice from local coffee experts, because “I like to work smart, not hard.” In planning the cafe, he consulted with Grisolono and Tera Staten, who both worked for Water Street Coffee Joint.
The cafe itself had been a long time in the planning. While KPEP had “dabbled” in vocational training, its strategy to incorporate an actual food establishment with on-the-job training didn’t become formal until 2015.
The building at 322 W. Walnut had been sitting empty, and since it was located directly behind KPEP’s outreach treatment center at 529 S. Park, and had access to Park Street traffic, it seemed ideal.
“Most coffee shops look like our coffee shop,” says Grisolono, who was initially hired as a consultant and is now a full-time KPEP employee. “We built a professional-looking space. We made sure our uniforms were professional. Our employees are required to cover tattoos, have no facial piercings. I think it makes our residents feel better.”
Walnut & Park cafe staff are enthusiastic about the success of KPEP and its vocational training program.
Grisolono says she loves her job at Walnut & Park as she gets to make coffee and inspire others. “This is technically a correctional facility, but I’m not a correctional officer. I’m the boss. It’s on them to take responsibility to go to work every day.”
She says the participants she works with come from a wide variety of circumstances. “Sometimes this is their first sentence. Others have been in jail or prison and messed up. If they violate the terms of probation or parole, they come here and get some type of help to hopefully trigger a change.”
“We run correctional programs that are close to neighborhoods and it’s not always easy,” says DeBoer. “People don’t necessarily want a bunch of criminals or drug addicts in the neighborhood. And so having them work at the cafe puts a whole different face on who we are and who these folks are.”
Many regular customers become invested in the lives of the students and cafe workers, says Gretchen VanDyke, cafe manager. “Many of our customers come in because of the program and what we do. There’s a lot of places in town to go for coffee, but they come here. We couldn’t do it without them.”
After two-and-a-half years, DeBoer is happy with the cafe’s evolution. “It has become this community gathering place,” says DeBoer. “We’ve been more than pleased with the community response and the return customers.
“We have students, we have neighbors, we have groups who frequent the cafe,” says DeBoer. “And it’s great to see on a daily basis that the coffee shop has become a neighborhood hangout.”
Building on success: KPEP plans Edison diner
All profits from the cafe return to KPEP, which is a nonprofit. “The focus isn’t on profit, which is fantastic,” says Grisolono. “We’re here for our students. We’re also here for our community.”
In those ways, the cafe has been so successful that plans are underway for opening a diner on Washington Square in the old Color Lab building, at 1324 Portage St. As KPEP would like to keep their current cafe branding, W & P will likely be part of the new diner name, which fits perfectly with Washington Square and Portage Street.
Edison residents have long listed a diner as a desired addition to their neighborhood plan. “The neighborhood is very excited,” says DeBoer. While likely not opening until April, Grisolono says the hope is that it will be finished in time for the opening of the Bank Street Farmers’ Market in 2020.
Walnut & Park cafe serves light breakfast and lunch items, including soup, salad, sandwiches and this spinach and feta danish.
KPEP is working with local restaurateur Mark Nieuwenhuis, who owns two Kelvin & Co. restaurants, one in Kalamazoo and one in Grand Rapids, and Burger Bros on Kalamazoo’s Eastside. “Mark is great at processes,” says DeBoer. “And that’s what we really need.”
In addition to general seating, the building will feature a 20 to 25 person meeting space. Hours will be limited to start, says Grisolono. Breakfasts will feature egg combos and scrambles with local ingredients, and lunches will be salads, sandwiches and burgers, with specials so “things don’t get redundant.”
In addition, DeBoer says, “We want to work with other locations to provide us with certain things, like the Can Do Kitchen
. So you walk into the diner and there’s a pie case from one of the bakers there.”
Grisolono is particularly excited about the diner because of its opportunity for KPEP to train line cooks, which is a position very much in demand at local restaurants.
Grisolono credits DeBoer’s leadership, vision, and enthusiasm for collaborating with other local organizations with the program’s success. “He loves it. We love it,” she says. “In a community like Kalamazoo, which is so warm and one-of-a-kind, we were not nervous about opening the cafe. But you never know. It’s just been welcoming, amazing community support.”
As for Heath, perfecting her latte art comes from watching mentor Grisolono and YouTube tutoring videos, a fascination she says that has become a “fun coping skill.”
But the most rewarding part of her full-time job, she says, is working with the new KPEP students. “I relate to them,” she says. “I like them to see actual proof of someone succeeding. If I can inspire even one person that they can do what I’m doing, that means a lot to me.
“I know everything they are going through so just to listen to them air out any grief they have right now is important to me because it was important to me when I was in their shoes.”
She says the KPEP staff “didn’t look at me from where I came from. They have looked past my many mistakes and allowed me room to grow and become anything I choose to be.”
Haven’t been to Walnut & Park yet? Check it out during Kalamazoo’s Coffee Week, Sept. 16 to 22. The new fall coffee menu, with lots of pumpkin and cinnamon, launched this week. Hours are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, and closed on Sunday.
Photos by Taylor Scamehorn, unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.