WEST BLOOMFIELD, Michigan — As the servers dance nimbly between tables taking orders and delivering food, a crew of young adults works at the same fast clip, busing tables, pouring water, and making sure that everything is squeaky clean. While the bustling, smoothly run dining room in Detroit’s Soul Cafe on a busy Sunday morning is remarkable — especially for a kosher restaurant in the Midwest — that’s not the only thing that sets this eatery apart.
The cafe is housed in the Farber Center, a metro-Detroit area education and activity center for adults with special needs run by the Friendship Circle of Michigan. These workers, many of them alumni of the Friendship Circle’s one-on-one program that pairs teen volunteers with special needs kids, are learning invaluable lessons that will eventually take them out of the Soul Cafe and into the wider world.
But good Samaritanship is not the main thing drawing the hunger-driven hordes.
“Most people come to a restaurant for three reasons,” says Chef Hunny Khodorkovsky, who was here from the launch of the Soul Cafe in April 2016. “They want good food, good service and a good price point. We offer them all of these.”
And it’s true — the food is excellent and the service is friendly, with customers and wait staff speaking with the warm familiarity characteristic of a small Jewish community. Khodorkovsky says that 95% of the ingredients are prepared in-house, and the cafe even makes its own granola bars. (Author’s note: definitely worth a try.)
The restaurant appeals to a wide demographic. Modern-Orthodox families wearing knitted kippot tuck into their omelets next to black-and-white-clad Hasidic families, who in turn sit elbow-to-elbow with diners of no visible denomination at all.
The eatery also boasts another great unifier — it is home to the world’s only cholov Yisrael (a high standard of kosher dairy supervision) Starbucks.
It’s part of an ambitious project aimed at helping a motivated cohort achieve independence while contributing to society.
More than just food-centric training
Khodorkovsky, the driving force behind everyday operations at the restaurant, is clear about her vision for the integrated work force.
“The goal is not for them to stay here. The goal is for them to get trained here, learn what it is to be in a restaurant, work in a restaurant, learn all the terminology, and then move on and get a job somewhere else and grow somewhere else,” she says.
She introduces Sam, who loves learning about the restaurant industry and participates in a separate program that teaches students to bake.
“I bus tables, serve water, and do dishes — I even sweep,” says Sam. “I’ve also learned how to prioritize tasks.”
Sam’s favorite part of working at the Soul Cafe is “definitely the coworkers.” It doesn’t take long to figure out why.
“We all work together as a team. We leave together, we work together — everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and whatever your strength is, you help your teammate if that’s their weakness,” says Khodorkovsky.
The one-time stay at home mother of four takes pride in her workers and does sometimes take on the role of educator, but says that this is hardly asymmetrical.
“You’re always learning from the people you work with,” she says. “I learn every day — I came into this not knowing anything about the restaurant industry aside from culinary school and going to restaurants. It’s totally different, I have a totally different view on everything now.
“It’s the same thing with everybody else, like it really is no difference between us and them. We should always be learning, always trying new things, challenging ourselves, and change is hard, but it’s what makes us become better — better people, better workers, better everything,” she says.
A ‘responsive’ state-of-the-art studio
The center offers more than just food-centric training. Attached to the restaurant, with its stripped-down, modern décor featuring sleek stainless steel and warm natural woods, is a state-of-the-art (no pun intended) studio with the tools to create in every medium imaginable.
On any given afternoon, you can find students painting, working with digital media, using the wood shop, and even weaving.
There is also a gallery, where prints from students’ original artwork are sold on everything from t-shirts to custom Converse sneakers.
Brian Kavanaugh, the studio manager and gallery director, says that the wide variety of artistic mediums is an essential part of the program’s modus operandi.
“We are a responsive studio art program, meaning that we really adjust what we do to each person that comes through here,” Kavanaugh says. “So it’s not as though someone signs up just for painting, or just for ceramics. They sign up for the studio, and then we mold what we have in terms of tools and materials and expertise to fit each person as best we can.”
“In the studio here I do painting, like I’m working on ‘Hugs.’ I’ve got a sample piece — you can see the sunshine, and it’s creating a hug, like it’s almost a heart,” he says, showing off a canvas. When Sam is finished with his shift at the Soul Cafe, he often comes and works in the studio.
The piece was one of a series of “Hugs” paintings by Sam, one of which went on to sell for $14,000 at a charity auction this year. His work is also popular in the Soul Studio gallery.
The restaurant-studio combination is one-of-a-kind, according to Friendship Circle co-founder Levi Shemtov, who started the now-international program with his wife Bassie, who actively manages the day-to-day activities at the Farber Center.
“These are ideas that were successfully tried in other places,” Levi Shemtov tells The Times of Israel via email. “We opted to try to enhance and perfect proven ideas. We believe that we are the first to bring together the cafe and studio concept. It is very helpful, as it brings the community to the studio, and that is exciting and helpful for the artists.
“Bassie traveled around the country visiting similar studies and interviewing their directors. We really created a dream studio for this purpose,” he writes.
The Shemtovs founded the Friendship Circle in 1994 to fill a mutual need they saw in teens, and children with special needs.
“Our goal was to do our shlichus in social services,” writes Shemtov. “We found that children who have special needs and their families were in many ways isolated and in need of friendship. We thought of an idea to match up teens in the community with children who have special needs for home play dates. The idea took off really fast and we realized that the teens who volunteered were gaining as much (if not more) from the friendship.”
From 16 kids to a worldwide organization
The Shemtovs bring new meaning to the phrase, “go big or go home.” The program started with eight pairs of teens and kids in Metro Detroit. It quickly grew into an international organization with thousands of participants around the globe.
It is the first of its kind, with fully-functional businesses, such as a bank, a drugstore, pet store, movie theater, and medical center. In 2005, the Friendship Circle moved into their first center in West Bloomfield, known as Ferber Kaufman Lifetown. The building has a state of the art activity center, but is best known for the Weinberg Village, a real life reproduction of a small town, with 11 different stores and working street lights to teach kids life skills in a safe environment.
The vocational training students receive further on down the line at the Farber Center serves to round out their education and enable them to achieve the independence they seek.
“Everyone gets treated the same way here,” says Khordokovsky. “In the kitchen it’s very fast paced. We don’t have time to baby people or pat everyone on the back. People just work, and I think they appreciate that.
“They don’t want to feel different. They want to feel like everyone else. And that’s the point of this — they have a job, they come to work, they have responsibilities, and people aren’t holding their hand every second of the way,” she says.