The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Social Justice Comes with the Coffee at Try-Me's Café

By Corynn Ginnow, AB '17, AM candidate '19 (SSA)

The School of Social Service Administration has invested in more than just a new source of caffeine and nourishment with the official opening of Try-Me's Café in the School this past fall. Like other campus cafés, Try-Me's offers pastries, sandwiches, coffee, and tea, and a welcoming space for students, staff, and visitors. 

Unlike other cafés, however, Try-Me's has a unique social justice-based commitment. The friendly faces working behind the counter are youth from Lawrence Hall, a community-based nonprofit organization in Chicago for resilient youth and their families, as well as a field (internship) site for SSA master’s students. Lawrence Hall provides programs including foster care, transitional living support for youth aging out of foster care, education, therapeutic treatment, and a workforce development program called Project Work. Try-Me’s is a culinary arts program within Project Work, and Try-Me’s Café at SSA is the projects’s first job-training commercial café.

“It’s a learning experience for the youth,” says Carla Ringo, the manager at Try-Me’s Café. “They have a lot to learn about workplace expectations, like punctuality, time-management, sanitation, and communication.”

Working at Try-Me’s Café is a transitional position for the youth, who work for six to nine months to develop their workplace skills and then move to competitive permanent employment. The first group of youth at Try-Me’s Café, consisting of three workers, have transitioned to permanent employment, with two currently employed and the third pursuing interview opportunities. Currently, there are six youth workers, two of whom have obtained their sanitation license and all of whom are developing transition plans, explained Sean McGuiness, Lawrence Hall’s Vice President of Community Development Programs.

Lawrence Barnes was part of that first group. “It was a struggle at first—I didn’t know how to make the coffee or use the espresso machine and I didn’t have cashier experience—but I caught on quickly,” he says. The training has paid off for Barnes, who recently landed a job at Jewel-Osco.

The idea to work with Lawrence Hall to operate the SSA café came from Curtis McMillen, the Deputy Dean for Curriculum and David and Mary Winton Green Professor. McMillen has been connected with the nonprofit over the past few years. “I knew Sean was leading new workforce development programming for Lawrence Hall, some of which was located on the South Side,” he explains. When he learned that SSA was looking into new options for the café space, he reached out to McGuiness to see if there might be fit between their workforce programming and the café. “Soon there was a meeting, a menu, and then a full proposal,” McMillen says. “It just happened that they had been looking for opportunities for a food retail space. The timing of our need and their need aligned.”

Lawrence Hall wasn’t the only option considered. “Two for-profit companies also wrote proposals,” McMillen says. “Lawrence Hall’s was better, very professional, and more aligned with SSA’s social justice mindset.”

For the past few months, Ringo says the goals have been growth and “ironing out the wrinkles.” They expanded the menu and hours in the fall and held a Tasting Event on October 10 for SSA students and the University community.

As Barnes prepares for his next job outside of Lawrence Hall, he says that he enjoyed his experience at Try-Me’s Café. “Everyone was awesome!” he says enthusiastically. “Everyone that came in always had a smile on their face and asked me how my day was going, so, yeah, I liked working there.”

Note: The Try-Me’s Café was permanently closed at the end of the 2019 Spring Quarter.