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Notes From a Single Mom: Restaurant Serves Inspiration for Homeless Mothers

In Sacramento, California, there is a very special restaurant called “Plates Café & Catering.” What makes Plates different from other eateries are the people who work there: homeless mothers served by St. John’s Shelter for Women and Children.

Plates is the brainchild of Michelle Steeb, CEO for the shelter, and Bobbin Mulvaney, co-owner of a restaurant and catering company in Sacramento. These enterprising women, who met for the first time over lunch in 2009, shared a similar vision: to help homeless mothers become self-sufficient by training them for jobs in the hospitality business.

“Children and hunger is an important issue to me,” Mulvaney said. “We live in one of the richest agricultural regions in the world and there shouldn’t be a child in our area whose mother is worried that there’s nothing for breakfast tomorrow.”

After visiting a rehabilitative program in San Francisco called Delancey Street, Steeb recognized that training formerly homeless mothers enrolled in St. John’s program to work in a real restaurant would be an important component to helping them provide for their own children eventually.

Courtesy Plates

An unidentified homeless mother working at Plates.

“They are homeless, not helpless,” she said.

Within six months of that initial meeting, Plates Café & Catering opened in an old Army commissary building, where it operates rent-free, thanks to a compassionate landlord who charges only for utilities and maintenance.

True to the founders’ vision, Plates is staffed by women served by St. John’s who clock in an average of 600 to 1,200 hours of training in preparing, cooking and serving breakfast and lunch to patrons, as well as filling orders for catering events, which generates the majority of Plates’ revenues.

Courtesy Plates

Michelle Steeb, Plates CEO

While they don’t earn money during their vocational training, they don’t have many expenses, either. St. John’s provides shelter, meals and child care. And Thunder Valley Casino, owned by the United Auburn Indian Community, offers a free shuttle service to the women. Steeb said these much-needed services remove barriers to steady employment so women can focus on completing the program and finding work in hospitality in order to become self-sufficient someday.

And the program is working wonders. Just ask 46-year-old Cynthia Bailey. In 2012, Bailey came to St. John’s as a homeless mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol. Today, she is clean and sober, and life looks promising. She and her 12-year-old son recently moved into their own apartment, subsidized by the shelter. She is training at Plates as a server and to her great surprise, discovered through art classes at St. John’s that she is a gifted artist.

“I never knew I had this talent,” Bailey said. Her artwork hangs on a wall at Plates, along with works by other women. “This program has given me so many blessings and rewards. It empowers me and I want to keep moving forward.”

Mary Scott, the sous chef at Plates, is another success story. In 2010, she left an abusive relationship in another part of the state where she owned a Mexican restaurant and gas station deli, and moved into St. John’s shelter to start anew.
After taking part in Plates’ six-month vocational training, Scott, who said she felt right at home in the restaurant business, was hired as the sous chef. Now it’s her job to teach other women how to cook and prepare dishes for customers.

Courtesy Plates

Mary Scott, Plates' sous chef

“This program saved my life. Now I’m self-sufficient, renting a house and saving up to buy a condo in the area,” she said.

Running the daily show at Plates and Plates2Go is General Manager Susan Wagner, who is in her element. Before moving to Sacramento, Wagner managed a chain of five restaurants in the Bay Area. “I have a big passion for this business because food is the celebration of life,” she said.

Managing Plates has been a dream job for this natural-born hostess, who said she fell in love with the women immediately. “To watch the human spirit come back to life is like watering a plant that has wilted,” Wagner said her work with the women of St. John’s is similar to the seeds she plants in her own garden:

“You water them and they’ll grow; you nurture them and they will produce. It feels so great to be in that environment.”

Lynn Armitage has a lot on her plate, too. She is a single mother in Northern California and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.