Edison Neighborhood

New work skills, a good lunch and a fresh cup of coffee are on the menu in Kalamazoo's Edison

KPEP is set to give a vacant building in the Edison Neighborhood a new face as it creates job training and employment opportunities.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.
New faces are using the Washington Square building that from 2017 through 2018 was adorned with the faces of 50 Edison Neighborhood residents.

Twelve students in the building trades program of KPEP are working to help renovate the former Kalamazoo Color Lab building at 1324 Portage St. into a diner that attracts more people to the Portage Street business corridor in Edison Neighborhood’s Washington Square area.

And many more vocational students are expected to participate in KPEP’s culinary arts and hospitality programs there, as the diner serves people for years to come.

“It will be a sit-down place for breakfast and lunch,” William DeBoer, president and chief executive officer of KPEP, says of the diner.  “… Our plan right now is just breakfast and lunch to start out. But that could change.”
Participants in the building trades vocational program of the Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program continue to do renovation work inside the former Kalamazoo Color Lab building at 1324 Portage St.
KPEP, which previously used the name Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program, is a residential and off-site rehabilitation program for state and federal probationers, criminal offenders and parolees. It's a private nonprofit operation that works with state and local courts and law enforcement to provide a community-based alternative to incarceration for adult offenders. 

It shortened its name to the acronym KPEP several years ago as it expanded its work outside of Kalamazoo. The 40-year-old program has three facilities in Kalamazoo and one facility each in Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, and Muskegon.

KPEP will spend $500,000 to $600,000 to renovate the former Kalamazoo Color Lab space, which has sat vacant for the past few years.

“Originally we had hoped to be open by now,” DeBoer says of the diner. But recent months have been busy for people in the local construction trades, including the architects, subcontractors and others that the project required. He now hopes to have interior renovation work on the 3,900-square-foot building completed by late April in order to have the diner up and running before the end of May.

William DeBoer is president and chief executive officer of the Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program.
DeBoer says he originally envisioned a classic diner with a black-and-white checkered floor and shiny red counter stools. Instead, the new place will share the modern, woodgrain and gray motif of KPEP’s 3-year-old Walnut & Park Café. That coffee shop, at 322 W. Walnut St., is less than five minutes away on the southern fringe of downtown Kalamazoo.

“We’re kind of doing the same color theme as Walnut & Park,” DeBoer says. It will also share some branding with the successful cafe. The diner is to be called W/P Diner @ Washington Square.

“Walnut & Park has such a good name we want to build on that in Washington Square,” DeBoer says.

The diner will have wooden booths and a service bar. Two general seating areas will look out onto Portage Street. Together, they will accommodate about 70 people. A 20-by-20-foot area will accommodate 20 to 30 people for meetings. During fair-weather months, the business will have outdoor seating for about 24 people on a rear patio. Additional outdoor seating will be available for an undetermined number of patrons in the wide alley to the south of the building.

The business will be open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. It will provide the equivalent of 12 full-time jobs, including a manager, assistant managers, cooks, servers, hosts and dish washers, DeBoer says. Operations at the diner are to be overseen by Casey Grisolono, food services director for KPEP’s five residential facilities. She was instrumental in opening Walnut & Park Cafe in March of 2017.

“Having a family-friendly diner has been in the Edison Neighborhood Plan wish list for decades,” says Kelly Clarke, executive director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank. “And the component of vocational training for KPEP clients was an additional feature that the neighborhood was excited about supporting.”

The Land Bank’s mission is “to repurpose, renew, and reconnect abandoned and underutilized property in Kalamazoo County,” Clarke explains. It strives to get them back on the tax rolls and improve the quality of life for people in the area. It has been working for several years with the Edison Neighborhood Association, the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) and others to bring new businesses into the Washington Square area and reverse patterns of vacancy.

“They have had a desire for businesses that would allow people to gather together, to eat, and spend time together,” Clarke says of the Edison Neighborhood.

Selling the former Kalamazoo Color Lab building for that purpose was therefore a great fit, she says.

After decades of business, the Color Lab closed and the building it used was donated to the Land Bank. “It was in rough shape,” Clarke says. The Land Bank struggled to find a user for the building and in 2017, the front façade was adorned with large black and white portraits of more than 50 area residents.

The mission of KPEP’s building trades program is to give people who have been in corrections an opportunity to gain skills in a field in which they may want to work.

“We identified the building as one of the central ‘canvases’ of the Inside Out art installation,” says Clarke, referring to the "The Inside Out Project: We Are Edison," an art project inspired by the work of an internationally renowned French photographer. It used images of neighborhood residents' faces to invite the community to take a look at itself. 

“That project, managed by our AmeriCorps volunteer (Anna Roeder), was a wonderful opportunity to engage Edison residents and showcase the pride that they have in their neighborhood,” she says.

Continuing its efforts to help redevelop Washington Square, the Land Bank put a new roof on the Color Lab building and sold it to KPEP in 2018.

KPEP's work started with demolishing the interior of the building. When it was open, the Color Lab helped professional photographers, advertisers, and others to produce or reproduce top-quality images and projects, work it accomplished in small rooms that had to be taken out to accommodate the diner.

DeBoer says KPEP's building trades program is “kind of like our other projects. This is going to give these guys experience on commercial renovations. We have a group of subcontractors that are really willing to let our guys watch and learn.”

The mission of KPEP’s building trades program is to give people who have been in the corrections system “an opportunity to maybe see themselves in a different way,” says building trades instructor Eric Stucky, “to value themselves in a different way and get some exposure to some skills in places where they might want to pursue employment.”

In its second year, the building trades program partners closely with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank to rehabilitate and renovate blighted houses the Land Bank has acquired. 

“We like to think of this as a partnership with our communities,” DeBoer says. For criminal offenders, he says, “It’s an opportunity for them to give back. We’re rehabilitating lives. We’re rehabbing neighborhoods. We’re rehabbing homes.”

The building trades program runs for eight weeks. Stucky says that's a short time to teach newcomers the construction trades. But during their time with the diner project, students have been introduced to such things as setting doors and windows, setting kitchen cabinets and refinishing floors, as well as drywalling and painting. 

KPEP’s hospitality program got its start about four years ago. It trains participants in cooking and other restaurant services. It also provides training in janitorial, custodial, and related hotel services. Each vocational program has an in-class component as well as on-the-job training.

KPEP building trades instructor Tim Thornton leads the program’s building trades program which gives people who have been in corrections an opportunity to gain skills.

Speaking of the hospitality program, Stucky says, “We’ve actually hired people who have gone through (that program). And that’s our goal too in building trades. If we can get some people who have come through our program – eventually maybe we can give them a little bit of employment, a little bit more experience.”

With the new diner, DeBoer says, “The mission is to expand our hospitality program and provide different sorts of training.”

That includes training for waitresses, waiters, prep-cooks, counter workers/cashiers, and those serving as restaurant hosts and hostesses. Walnut & Park has given a lot of adult offenders and good start in the food service industry but that training experience has been limited, KPEP has found.

“At Walnut & Park, customers come up to the counter and everything is pre-made,” DeBoer says. “You have your scones, your deli sandwiches, ready-made soup and paninis to put in a (hot) press. But we have nothing that is cooked-to-order at Walnut & Park.”

There's a prep-kitchen where chicken salad, cookies, vegetable salads and other things are made from scratch. But the coffee shop doesn’t do short-order cooking. The diner will.

“The diner will be eggs and pancakes, sandwiches, cooked-to-order stuff – a whole different kind of order,” DeBoer says.

It will have a double-sized kitchen to allow trainees to watch and learn as food is being prepared. He says it will also give his people a chance to develop “soft” skills, such as looking people in the eye, knowing how to greet them, and listening to what they want.

Speaking about the diner and other projects that are on the horizon in the Edison Neighborhood, Clarke says, “I think there’s a lot of positive energy and a lot of great things happening. It’s wonderful to see others helping to make the Portage Street corridor a great place for residents to shop and eat and visit with one another and live.”

Photos by Fran Dwight. See more of her work here.
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Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.