Craig Cuccia is the co-founder and executive director of Café Reconcile, a restaurant that provides on-the-job training in the service industry for inner city teens in New Orleans. As one of twelve recipients of this year’s Catholic Digest heroes award (see October 2007 issue), Cuccia recently took the time to speak with the magazine about the seeing God’s grace, expanding his ministry, the restaurant’s award-winning bread pudding.
Cuccia: I had been able to travel around the world, working in the oil fields. I went through Europe and worked in Africa, and I saw a lot of poverty. Later, I worked in hotels and restaurants, and I was also involved in construction. But m life took a major turn in about 1992. I got involved with a charismatic community in New Orleans and a priest name Emile LaFrance. He helped guide me. I was a full-time general contractor at the time, and things sort of evolved into my going into ministry full-time. We went on a mission trip to Jamaica, and we visited people that lived on a dump. We met with some missionary nuns, and they brought us around and in a three-day period I watched God’s hands at work. The Lord was working in my life, and I wound up coming back from Jamaica and just sort of taking the time to start running a bargain store and a soup kitchen.
Fr. Lafrance died in 1995, and I went to see a Jesuit priest named Harry Tompson. Harry seemed to have caught the vision that Fr. LaFrance had before he died, about creating a parish that promotes people to be involved in outreach and helping each other and helping themselves grow spiritually. After about 8 months of meeting with him and talking, we came to this reality that he wanted to do something, and I was sort of searching for what my next level of call was, so I went to a neighborhood called Center City, which is where Café Reconcile is now. I had some friends in ministry down there, and it just became clear to me that Center City was where I needed to be. In the last years of Harry’s life, we opened a homeless center next to the church, and then he developed a thing called the Good Shepherd Nativity School, as well as open Café Reconcile. That was a tremendous experience for me. I say some days I’m just sitting back, watching God’s hands work. But everyday you’ve got to show up and do what He’s asking you to do.
The next part of the story is that my brother-in-law, an attorney named Tim Falcon, was experiencing his own spiritual call. He and I met with Harry, and we came up with the theme of reconciliation — between the haves and the have-nots, the racial divide, the economic divide, those things. Within two days of each other, they both said to me, “Look, we know we have to do something down here, but you have to do it.” I wasn’t thinking that this would be my call. It turns out it was.
CD: What was the next step?
Cuccia: There was a five-story building in the murder hotspot of the city. Prostitutes and drug dealers that owned the corner, so we made friends with them first to get in the building. We bought the building, and started a kids ministry with the collaboration of our other partners. A bunch of other denominations got involved. We went into a neighborhood that had 30 churches in 30 blocks, and none of them were working together. So we pointedly gathered those who were really down in the neighborhoods doing something. We got together and developed a program where kids from the inner city came in and had a fine dining experience. They learned how to be waiters and waitresses, to work in the kitchen, and they got a little stipend. They learned how to have dinner conversation. That went over really well, and we had all these different volunteer groups come in and just share with the kids and do artwork. And we introduced them to African-American doctors, and firemen, and policemen. We were somebody that cared and was concerned about them, and it broke down a lot of barriers and perceptions and we built a lot of trust with the neighbors.
Those were 6 to 16-year-old kids for the most part. We had about 80 kids every week, and it evolved and we started an art program, a reading program, an after-school program, and we did a garden up the street where the kids grew vegetables and herbs. We wanted to run a real restaurant so these kids would have a real experience. Now the kids that we’re dealing with are 16 on up, and in the beginning we even took in some adults. I had one lady who had 11 children and she had never worked before, and she went through our program and got on at the Hilton.
Those were really neat times to see — the start up of all this. To experience all these other people coming in and to be willing to share and give.
CD: How do you finance now?
Cuccia:: Donations and grants. For the first three years, we were establishing a business and a reputation of good food and good prices. It broke down a lot of the negative perception in the neighborhood. When we did the kids program and opened the café, we invited as many people as we could to get them back in that neighborhood, because before it was a place people avoided. We had to overcome a lot of negative perception, and by doing it in a place of peace. I remember when Harry hung the cross over the door, which we have still to this day, we had a ceremony and a blessing of the building, and I had some prayer group friends over and we were up on the roof having prayer meetings. We were doing that on Saturdays while we prayed about what direction to go in. I remember those times as being so blessed to be open to the way God wants us to go.
Cuccia: Probably anywhere from $5.95 to $10.95. We purposely kept the prices low so people in the neighborhood could access it. They still do. We have one of the most diverse clientele groups in the city. We’ve received national awards for our bread pudding.
CD: Where do the recipes come from?
Cuccia: We develop them over time, with different chefs, and a lot of people giving us input. The white beans and shrimp is one of our major draws. It’s like eating at your mom’s. People would come to the Cafe once to be benevolent, but if the food’s not good they wouldn’t come back, so we focus on making sure the food is high quality. They feel good about coming to eat there. We bring kids in, we teach them life skills, we put them in a uniform, we feed them. We’ve had over 400 kids graduate from the program, and we got a justice department grant after Hurricane Katrina, and we’re building houses for our employees so our employees and the kids who come through the program and go get jobs will have the opportunity to own a home.
CD: How was your program affected by hurricane Katrina?
Cuccia: Well, we were one of the first restaurants to re-open — in about 6 weeks. We had some damage, but that was not enough to stop us. We went through the same experience after the storm that we did to open the business originally. It was like starting all over, but amazingly, the same people who helped us open the thing originally helped get it back on again. We got people to help us, and we popped the doors open and we started serving everybody that was in the city, all the recovery people and that kind of thing, and then we were able to hire a few people at a time. We opened with three people and a couple of volunteers, and it evolved. For a long time we were in a buffet line, but just about six months ago, we were able to get people back at the tables. We’re back to full service and we’ve been training the kids again since last August. The governor came by and committed 600,000 to our renovation project, we’re going to renovate our corner into a holistic training center. We’re going to have the Emeril Lagasse Foundation culinary training institute, which will serve as a catering hall and another level of training, and we’re going to have Shell Oil fund a business accelerator, which is like a business incubator to help entrepreneurs get their businesses started and keep them going. And then the family learning center will be run by the literacy alliance at Loyola University. We’ll have our offices upstairs. It’s been a miracle. I would sit there and tell people that I need a computer, and somebody walks in the door wanting to donate a computer. Those are the kinds of things that have happened to us over the last 11 years. Sometimes it comes at 11:59 and 59 seconds.
CD: What keeps you motivated as you continue?
Cuccia: Prayer, God’s grace, other people’s prayer. You have your ups and downs. My life has changed. My wife Lisa’s support has allowed me to follow God’s call. We needed to get a new roof on the building, and she helped me put that roof on. Not many women will follow you 65 feet up into the air. I truly believe it’s the grace of God, like everything is. I try to stay tuned to the right way to go. The diving board of faith gets higher and the dark hole you’ve got to dive into gets deeper, but you’ve just got to dive off and trust that God catches you along the way. I owe so much to so many. So many people that God brought have given me tremendous things that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. God can use anybody anywhere anyhow, and it’s up to us to open the door and let him use us. CD