The Dish: Chez Innovation Inspires Food Industry Dreams

The Moses Brown summer camp exposed students to some of the best Rhode Island food businesses, including the Southside Community Land Trust and Amos House.

A group of teens meanders through an urban paradise. Verdant greens shoot out of soft soil, grapes dangle on vines and the aroma of basil permeates the air. A siren reminds them that they are still in an asphalt jungle.

The teens are exploring the Southside Community Land Trust’s City Farm, wandering through patches of gooseberry bushes and pea shoots as part of the Chez Innovation program offered by Moses Brown School and Roosevelt International Academy. Chez Innovation is a weeklong summer camp where high school entrepreneurs see various business models for Rhode Island food companies all while creating their own ideas. At the end of the program, each student’s business plan will be pitched to entrepreneurs and culinary professionals at Johnson and Wales University, leading to a fuller understanding of the food industry but also to the possibility of bringing their ideas to life.

Adam Olenn, director of communications and community engagement at Moses Brown, helped to spearhead the program at last December’s 2030 Forum. “The food industry strengthens Rhode Island’s economy, and we need to embolden entrepreneurs. We don’t want kids to have a great idea, but be scared off by things like accounting,” he says. “With this program, we want to give them confidence to give a swing at it,” Olenn says.

Today they will visit City Farm and Amos House, two different food businesses that are rooted in community. Rich Pederson, city steward at City Farm, stands in front of his young audience and tells them to “create a niche, and never, ever, jeopardize quality.” Pederson looks like a farmer just as much as he sounds like one, sporting a beard and a straw hat that shades him from the intense summer sun. He plunges his hand into a nearby bucket and asks, “Did everyone try the purslane?”

As the teens munch on purslane leaves, they walk through an urban oasis for organic and community gardening. The farm is three-fourths of an acre, and is a functioning model of sustainable, hyper-local urban agriculture with what they describe as “bio-intensive growing methods.” This bio-intensive plot is cared for by volunteers and interns and aims to teach as well as cultivate.

The urban gardens at City Farm.

The students are in awe of the lush garden, as well as the community effort that nurtures each batch of beets or patch of potatoes. Words like “innovative,” “social enterprise” and “collaboration” pop up as often as the onions that poke from the soil. Meanwhile, great ideas also proliferate amongst this creative crew. Philip Thomson’s business project hopes to create cooking classes for teens with anorexia, while T.T. Mabray sees himself opening a hip-hop, pop-culture themed restaurant for teens − a place that their parents know is trustworthy.

Chez Innovation fosters entrepreneurial spirit and creates a nurturing environment to think critically and learn. This involves going to various food companies in Rhode Island to compare models and learn the ins and outs of running a business. Throughout the week, they visited Blackbird Farm, where they learned the ethos of sustainable livestock raising; Daniele’s charcuterie plant, where they tasted mortadella and prosciutto; and even an oyster farm where after a hard day of mucking about, they ate their harvest and swam off the docks.

After their visit to City Farm, they board the bus and drive over to Amos House to witness a business model that’s different from anything they have seen yet. Amos House provides food, work and shelter to the homeless of Providence.

“Some kids are interested in social issues, so we are going to Amos House. It doesn’t run on dreams and wishes and will show them business realities,” Olenn says.

Though Amos House is up the block from City Farm, with sirens blaring, bass bumping and the summer heat beating down on blacktop, the landscape has drastically changed.

Eileen Hayes, president and CEO of Amos House, chef Linda Kane and food businessman John Farber greet the students and take them to a wooden pagoda built by the men and women in Amos House’s carpentry program.

Scenes from Amos House.

“Welcome! What you are sitting in was designed by people in our carpentry program. This is our fortieth year. We started with a men’s program, serving lunch to thirty to 100 men and serving breakfast and lunch to 500 people daily,” Hayes says.

She delves into the challenges and triumphs inherent in running a nonprofit, socially-based business.

“How do you run a business like this? We made lots and lots of mistakes along the way,” Hayes says.

“There was the Friendship Cafe, which was a failed venture. It’s really hard. It’s hard to always stay true to your mission, help employees rather than replacing them, invest in people, not just the business.”

Farber adds, “I sit on the board. We are dependent on contributions and support from community.”

Kane, a chef at Johnson and Wales who helps at Amos House, describes food and its role in this kind of business. “I want you to think about who is eating today and why. Has anyone worked in a soup kitchen?”

A few hands go up.

“So, who’s eating here today?” she asks.

A few voices say, “people struggling” and “all different people.”

Kane continues, “Most picture the 20 percent of chronic homeless, disheveled with shopping carts. But you’re gonna be surprised.”

Amos House is an expression of reality, perseverance and hope. After hearing the facts and figures, the students line up to get a taste of what is going on inside the kitchens. They are served watermelon, tuna, salad, chips and cranberry juice by a smiling staff, and they take seats at tables as the noise level rises.

The students talk amongst themselves with expressions of wonder. A variety of people surround them: young, old, well-dressed and threadbare.

The experiences of the Chez Innovation program, whether it is eating at Amos House or examining basil leaves at City Farm, have left an impact on these young innovators.

“It is really cool how they let young people explore ways to open a business, to create an idea and to pursue it,” says Bella DeAngelo.

Judiana Moise agrees. “It opened my mind about different places I didn’t know about, especially local farms and how we can be healthy and don’t have to buy fast food. It gives you hope.”

Olenn hopes that the program will continue its success next year, with a new group of students and a new array of ideas.

“The program is testing, proofing ideas, guiding and counseling, and maybe there will even be ‘next steps,’ " he says. “Maybe some will actually start a business.”

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