It’s not often that a restaurant brings people to tears. But it’s hard to hold back when so many of the people who work the register, froth the cappuccino milk, knead the biscuit dough and bus the tables all have a story to tell — about a time when they had nothing and nowhere to go.
And how CitySquare changed all that for good.
“I didn't have these opportunities where I’m from in Arkansas,” says Brandy Dixon, a 39-year-old mother of four. “My kids didn't have uniforms, I didn’t have transportation — not even toiletries. And CitySquare provided. You wouldn’t even know I’d been homeless.”
Now, Dixon is a baker at CitySquare Café, one of the nonprofit’s many programs designed to help fight poverty and uplift the poor in Dallas. In just the few weeks since her first day, Dixon has perfected her biscuits, which are soft, sweet and melt-in-your-mouth buttery. Any day now, she’ll be graduating to bread pudding. She said working in this kitchen, making these biscuits every day, is a far cry from the life she had.
“[My kids] are so proud of me. They love the biscuits,” she says, her voice catching a little. She swiped her fingers under her eyes. “They are so proud. And I’m proud of myself.”
Dixon is a graduate of CitySquare’s WorkPaths Hospitality Training Program, a five-week course that equips its students with Texas food handler and alcoholic beverage certification, basic culinary training and a better understanding of how to get employed and thrive in the industry. After the course, a few select “star students” move on to intern at the cafe for seven more weeks, working front or back of house and finding where their skills and their hearts lie. For Dixon, that was in baking. For others, it might be in service, making espresso or running the kitchen.
The hospitality/restaurant industry is the fastest-growing sector of the economy, and the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association estimates the Dallas-Fort Worth area comprises a quarter of the industry in all of Texas. If there was a trade worth tapping, this would be the one.
“Because of the need for employment in this area, [CitySquare] created the hospitality program so that our neighbors would be able to get a skill set to be able to go and earn a living wage,” says Sonya Dorsey, CitySquare’s executive chef and lead chef instructor. “Everybody's going to want to eat. And with there being so many restaurants and hotels in this area, there's always going to be a need, and we can get them connected with good partners.”
Knowing that its students, many of whom are low-income or homeless, are often faced with logistical barriers, CitySquare provides transportation to and from the cafe and supports them and their families in the meantime with everyday resources, housing location, post-graduate job placement and whatever they need to stay afloat. The goal is to help them find work and exit homelessness, no matter the cost. Over the past three years, the program has sent several of its graduates on to hotel partners like the Omni, the Joule, the Adolphus and the Magnolia.
But Dorsey said while the goal is certainly employment, she hopes the program and time spent at the cafe inspire more than that. It’s about loving the work, too.
“The thing I love about Brandy is she puts passion in everything she does, and that's what I try to instill into my students: to have a passion. This is your life. This is what’s going to make you successful. This is what's going to make you productive. So love what you do. I love being here. It’s etched into my heart,” Dorsey says, choking back her own tears.
“You know it's never easy. But when I see Brandy, I want to cry because look at what she's doing. Look at what she's done and look at where she’s going to go. This all goes with her. It doesn't end here. I’m so proud of her.”
Calling CitySquare Café a “social impact” restaurant would be a bit redundant, since social service is baked into the mission of the entire nonprofit. But nonetheless, it joins a culinary movement happening across the country that strives to mingle advocacy and altruism with entrepreneurship to create a more accessible and equitable food environment.
Chad Houser’s Café Momentum has led that charge in Dallas. The downtown nonprofit, which began as a pop-up enterprise in 2011, staffs its restaurant entirely with at-risk youth who’ve crossed paths with the Dallas County Juvenile Department. Much like at CitySquare Café, the young men and women at Café Momentum learn culinary, life and job skills, fortified by case management staff in an “ecosystem of support,” according to the restaurant’s website.
There’s also the Rooster Soup Co. in Philadelphia, which dedicates 100 percent of its profits to the Broad Street Ministry’s Hospitality Collaborative, a charity that feeds the city’s most vulnerable. The Perennial in San Francisco strives to run an eco-friendly, sustainable business and collaborates with its nonprofit partner Zero Foodprint to reduce the restaurant industry’s massive carbon footprint.
And California chef and restaurateur Daniel Patterson began working with nonprofits to empower at-risk teens by teaching them cooking skills, an initiative which, in turn, inspired his work on Locol, a partnership with Los Angeles restaurateur Roy Choi, aimed at dismantling food deserts via affordable, healthy fast-food alternatives. But after two years, Choi and Patterson have closed all brick-and-mortar locations of Locol, following nonstop financial turbulence and scathing public criticism, accusing the duo of riding into poor communities like white knights for a problem they barely understood.
What happened to Locol is a fate that many of these social impact establishments try to avoid at all costs. But at CitySquare Café, it’s not a likely one. The joint is a nonprofit through and through, built upon a 30-year legacy with firm, much-adored roots in the greater Dallas community.
The Opportunity Center on Malcolm X Boulevard — which is the organization’s administrative headquarters and the primary campus for its cafe and services — sits at the intersection of Interstates 30 and 45. To its immediate west was the site of the 300-person homeless encampment, dubbed “Tent City,” which was shuttered by the City of Dallas in 2016. CitySquare played a huge role in helping relocate those displaced residents. To its north, a mere six-minute walk away, is the Deep Ellum Brewing Company and the rest of the area’s many posh establishments. For years, CitySquare has walked the fine line of being a good neighbor to very different people.
In addition to its daily efforts to feed, clothe, house and employ its neighbors, CitySquare is responsible for huge developments like the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, which opened the doors of 50 tiny homes in 2016 to the city’s most vulnerable homeless men and women. And in 2010, it converted a dilapidated downtown building across the street from Ross Tower into low-income housing. The group works alongside organizations like Americorps every year to deliver thousands of free meals to students who lose access to reduced lunches over the summer. And in 2017, CitySquare placed more than 700 homeless individuals in permanent housing across DFW.
The organization also runs robust advocacy campaigns to support SNAP benefits, Medicaid expansion, fair chance hiring regulations for formerly incarcerated individuals as well as stricter regulations on pay-day and auto-title lending. The list is endless. And in keeping with its mission, the cafe’s proceeds go directly back into the hospitality program, which sponsors 18-20 students each training rotation.
“We don't make an attempt to professionalize poverty. We look it square in the eye and then we rally everyone to join us in the fight against it,” says Larry James, CitySquare CEO. “There's deep, deep respect here. There are no inferior people. There are no throwaway people.
“We really work hard to provide quality opportunities for the folks who come through these programs. And, you know, we don't always succeed. There's always room for improvement, but the thing that makes it so encouraging is the people who come through are all highly motivated and eager to take advantage of the opportunity. We get to see people take a deep breath, get connected across the class and make friends. It's a cool thing to watch.”
That was certainly the case for Brandy Dixon. She discovered CitySquare and the hospitality program through serendipitous word of mouth, and in just a short while, she says she’s found a real home at CitySquare — and she’s also found housing.
“I have not felt out of place not one day I have been here,” she says. “I have no family here, and everybody that I have come in contact with has showed me nothing but love. So it's my big family, and it gives you peace. I love to come in. I don’t like to be late. I don’t even like to leave on time. I will find something else to do just to stay around. I wouldn't trade it for nothing in the world.”
Dixon pointed to chef Sonya Dorsey and coworker Jonnika McIntosh-Williams. “These ladies are wonderful,” she says.
McIntosh-Williams is also a graduate of the CitySquare hospitality program and was actually part of the inaugural internship class at the cafe, which opened just in April. She signed up for the program with her sister, who had just moved to Dallas, was homeless and looking for a fresh start.
“And I wanted to be supportive of her. So I said ‘if you go to the program, I'll go with you.’ My sister was chosen for the back of the house and I was chosen for the front,” she says. “I had never worked in hospitality at all, so this was all really new for me. I wanted something new. I just didn't know that this was going to be my path. It wasn't my journey, but it became my journey.”
After the internship, CitySquare brought her on full time as the cafe and catering coordinator. Her job now entails organizing and delivering box lunches, pastry trays and whatnot to nearby businesses and events. It’s her smile, Dorsey says, that won them over.
“[The cafe] was hope for my sister, and now it's giving me hope that I can start a new trade and start a new path at this point in my life,” McIntosh-Williams says.
Reinvention is a common theme among the workers. Dorsey herself walked away from a successful catering and celebrity chef business to give her all to CitySquare and this cafe.
The food is your standard cafe fare: soups, salads and sandwiches. There’s also coffee and espresso drinks, fresh flavored lemonades and a fridge with ready-to-eat, on-the-go snack packs.
Dorsey and company swear by all the items on the menu, but there’s a considerable consensus on the favorites. The herb chicken salad sandwich is creamy and heartily seasoned, scooped between a flaky croissant. The biscuits are soft and buttery and are served all day with a side of deliciously sweet honey butter. But if you come early, you can pick up some biscuits and gravy for breakfast.
The grilled chicken ranch on pretzel bread is James’ go-to, and Chef Dorsey can never pass up a hot bowl of tomato basil soup. But if you’re a sweet tooth like McIntosh-Williams, try a slice of red velvet marble cake or a peanut butter turtle brownie, all made from scratch, “with love” and proudly on display at the front counter. The cascade of icing is enough to entice. And nothing is more than $10.
The space is clean, modern, airy and bright, but the atmosphere is unforgettably warm and welcoming. There’s music humming in the background, and laughter and affable banter boom from behind the counter and back in the kitchen. On the wall behind the register is a shelf of white mugs, embossed with praising notes and signatures of past program graduates. And propped up among them is a small, black picture frame, memorializing the cafe’s very first transaction: one cinnamon roll and a juice charged to Dorsey’s husband, Keith.
It’s clear they value community here, and that’s why the cafe is open to everyone, not just CitySquare employees. So if you’re looking for a new place to grab a bite, CitySquare Café is happy to bring you into its embrace. They hope customers across Dallas will come for the food and stay for the mission.
“We’re not trying to be Wolfgang Puck,” Dorsey says. “We're trying to create a program where we can create opportunities.”
“The food is good, but when they find out what we do here, they want to continue to come back," McIntosh-Williams adds. "They don’t stop, they support. So I think even though the industry is high in demand for different restaurants, I think that’s a big difference.”
But the hospitality program at CitySquare has had to recognize that despite the opportunities they strive to procure, they’re still sending their graduates out into a cutthroat industry, notorious for poor pay and lack of worker protections. The industry as a whole is the lowest-paying employer in the country, with seven out of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in food service. These graduates, many of whom are formerly homeless, financially vulnerable and have had to deal with socioeconomic and racial inequity, could risk falling back into tough spots.
“The solution to poverty is money, and we’ve got to get money into the hands of our teams,” James says. “We need to bring the conversation to a level where the people who are responsible for the product benefit from it as much as the owner. It's all about earning a living. People want to work and we’ve got to make some changes so they're rewarded appropriately for their hard work and for what they do.”
It’s a tall order for a single nonprofit to change the entire hospitality industry, but it’s a fight CitySquare will fight. And they’re already doing it by empowering those the business has historically ignored. Eradicating poverty hinges on these long battles. And until then, CitySquare — and people like Larry James, Sonya Dorsey, Brandy Dixon and Jonnika McIntosh-Williams — will continue to forge a path forward, creating as many opportunities as they can, spreading hope and upending the industry one delicious biscuit at a time.
CitySquare Café, 1610 S. Malcolm X Blvd.