It’s been a decade since Billings Forge Community Works hosted its first farm-to-table fundraiser dinner in Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood. In that time, the outdoor dining experience has grown from not quite 70 attendees to closer to 300 guests, as supporters look forward to the annual event.
Last year, organizers decided to change the format, moving from a seated family-style dinner to food stations, manned by the program’s culinary job trainees. That setup returns for the upcoming 2018 dinner on Sept. 13, encouraging guests to meet the program participants and learn more about their experiences.
“We try to embed everything we do in the actual food experience,” says Cary Wheaton, Billings Forge’s executive director. “I think people leave with really a feeling of what we do, and what the marriage is between our social enterprises and what we provide, which sometimes I think is mysterious to people.”
Billings Forge’s nonprofit missions provide sustainable social enterprises through its cafés on Broad Street and at the Hartford Public Library (and associated catering business), and food access through its popular farmers’ market, which works to double or even triple visitors’ food subsidies, Wheaton says.
Culinary job training is a large part of its efforts. The organization’s café on Broad Street employs 26 to 30 adult trainees every year, many with multiple barriers to employment, including poverty, homelessness, past addiction or re-entry after incarceration. They work through a 10-to 12-week paid program to learn crucial skills: cooking, baking and knife work; sanitation and ServSafe certification.
“We have an 85 percent success rate at getting them jobs, which is great,” Wheaton says. “A lot of it is because they are working in a real kitchen, and they’re learning what it is to have a job.”
Recently, Billings Forge Community Works helped place six program graduates at the new Shake Shack restaurant in West Hartford, which opened in late April. Dave Yearwood, the area director who oversees the Connecticut locations, was “very committed and invested in the program,” Wheaton says.
The Kitchen at Hartford Public Library, which just marked its fifth anniversary, is also operating a customer service training program for 25 to 30 Hartford opportunity youth, defined as city residents aged 18 to 24 who are not working or attending school. An additional 25 to 30 DCF-involved youth, ages 17 and 18, are involved in a culinary entrepreneurship program. The organization is also working toward developing a career pathway for culinary and hospitality studies at community colleges, Wheaton says.
The summer has brought a few aesthetic changes to the nonprofit’s Frog Hollow-based eateries. The Kitchen café on Broad Street has a refreshed look, with rearranged seating, counter space and a grab-and-go case with sandwiches and salads. Firebox Restaurant, which supports the Billings Forge organization, closed for about a week in late August for cosmetic updates, including fresh paint and a brand-new bar.
The Sept. 13 dinner on the Billings Forge Green, next to Firebox, features planned menu items like spinach risotto with cured egg yolk, poppy seed blini with beets and goat cheese, smoked brisket and espresso BBQ, seasonal fruit popsicles and wine and beer.
“People really enjoy it, and we try to tell the story of what we do,” Wheaton says. “We usually focus on somebody who’s gone through our job training program and whose lives have changed because of it. It’s a really moving thing for people, and it’s a really great thing of community.”
The Billings Forge Farm-to-Table dinner is Sept. 13 at 5:30 p.m. at 539 Broad St., Hartford. Tickets are $150. Information: billingsforgeworks.org/farm-to-table.