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Cote’s Colorado: Second chances on the menu

It's 10 a.m. at Café Options, and the scent of good things to come is wafting from the kitchen, where Chef Craig Dixon and his crew are grilling chicken breasts, flank steak and slices of eggplant and keeping watch on a simmering vat of apple cauliflower soup.

In the dining room, a customer taps at his laptop while two women prepare ingredients for the lunch crowd from behind the counter. It won't be long before they're serving up sandwiches and salads.

For patrons, it's a chance to order made-from-scratch meals at quick-serve restaurant prices. For employees, it's a chance to carve out a new career.

Café Options, a for-profit business operated by the nonprofit Work Options for Women, just marked its first anniversary in April at 1650 Curtis St. in the heart of the business and financial district.

One of the first things you see when you walk in is a sign telling customers that 100 percent of the proceeds goes to the nonprofit, which helps homeless and unemployed women gain the skills they need to secure jobs in the food service industry.

Work Options for Women, founded in 1996, operates a cafeteria at the Denver Human Services Building at 1200 Federal Blvd. Women accepted into the program complete 16 weeks of training and then are placed at local restaurants. Some of the more promising interns spend a month working at Café Options.

"They teach them some good culinary basics over there (at the cafeteria) - knife skills, sanitation," Dixon says. "But here they get a little bit more of a real-world experience, where they may work a full eight-hour shift in a fast-paced restaurant, calling in tickets, getting in all the fun variables that are in the daily life of a busy restaurant."

Catherine Henry, the nonprofit's new executive director, spent 18 years working for Aramark Corp., a national food service company whose local concession business includes Coors Field. She joined Work Options as a volunteer four years ago, first helping out in the kitchen. She eventually became a member of the board of directors and organized the nonprofit's annual fundraiser for two years. When Work Options decided to open the café, she became director of operations and led the effort.

"It's another opportunity to continue to train the women in our program but also an opportunity for us to hire the women," said Henry, 50, who noted that five permanent employees at the café are Work Options graduates.

One of them, Georgelene Godfrey, has been employed at the café since it opened. "It's helped me get a brand-new start on my life," said Godfrey, 44. "This is the first time for me being a prep cook, and I love it."

Café Options opened in one of the toughest economic climates in decades, but it's persevered.

"It was probably the worst time to open a restaurant, but we were under construction, we were on time and on target and ready to go so we just decided to go ahead and open it up," Henry said. "We've had great response from the community."

The tough economy also has led to an increased demand for Work Options, which is limited to about 20 participants at any given time.

"Even though we've opened a separate site," Henry said, "we continue to have a waiting list of women - and men - who are looking for an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families by having not just a job but a career in the food service industry."

Café Options presents the sixth Annual WomenCook! Dining for a Difference fundraiser on May 3. The 6 to 8:30 p.m. walk-around dinner at Temple Emanuel, 51 Grape St., Denver, features female chefs from notable Denver restaurants. Visit workoptions.org for more information.

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Mike Cote

Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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