Pancakes and burgers, with a side of community service

“Staten Island is a borough that’s serious about its food: Ask any resident to name their favorite restaurant and they’ll easily tick off a laundry list of local pizza joints, posh bistros and intimate coffee shops that serve gastronomically impressive fare.

But there’s a variety of comfort food cafes throughout the Island that are doing more than just serving up soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Here’s a look at three eateries that serve the community with purpose.

Harvest Café

Serving chocolate chip pancakes, steak and eggs and classic omelets, the Harvest Café on New Dorp Lane is always bustling during breakfast hours. But there’s also sandwiches, wraps, paninis and bowls of homemade soup to please the lunch crew and a specialty brunch menu on the weekends. And while the varied food choices are lauded by the restaurant’s clientele, it’s the cafe’s mission that takes precedence.

“Harvest Café not only serves the neighborhood as a breakfast and lunch destination, it also serves as employment training for individuals in our program,” revealed Richard Muniz, director of program services for employment at A Very Special Place, a local organization, which provides a comprehensive network of programs and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Launched in 2011, the program, which runs from 18 to 24 months, allows participants to gain important life skills with the goal of graduating and gaining employment outside of the café. “Individuals who work at Harvest Café train in different areas – some as food prep, others as dishwashers and some as both servers and greeters,” Muniz said. “We’ve found that the program really helps these individuals gain independence and work on their social skills. Many who have graduated from this program have gone on to work in other food establishments. The confidence and skills they learn here are so incredibly valuable.”

Commons Café

Founded in 2011 by Lois and Richard Nicotra with a gift of $1.6 Million, the COMMONS Cafè on South Avenue donates 100 percent of its profits to The Lois & Richard Nicotra Foundation, which aids non-profit organizations on Staten Island, while also providing college scholarships to the children and grandchildren of Nicotra’s employees.

“Our Foundation works to reach Staten Island nonprofits serving every community from shore to shore,” reported Lois Nicotra. “Working with Staten Islanders of every ability is a special opportunity to support our neighbors and these groups provide education, job training and socialization to their clients – and it gives our team the opportunity to meet and support some truly special people.”

To date, the Lois & Richard Nicotra Foundation has awarded nearly $800,000 to almost 400 nonprofit organizations and scholarship recipients. COMMONS Cafè, has been recognized for its portion of that sum by Newman’s Own Foundation and Facebook. And the Café’s mission of “Eat Good. Do Good.” will be replicated later this year when the Nicotras open a second social enterprise eatery, Pienza Pizza & Pasta, in their newest building, Corporate Commons Three.

“The COMMONS Cafè Grants are one way we reach out, and we are also proud that on the other side of our business at the Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton Inn & Suites we’ve partnered with the Seton Foundation for almost 10 years to create a classroom opportunity in a work environment at both hotels for about 20 students every academic year,” Richard Nicotra said.

On Your Mark

In 2001, On Your Mark debuted a smallish eatery on Forest Avenue that would help teach individuals with disabilities about the food service industry. The vocational program was such a success with On Your Mark’s participants that the organization decided to extend the effort, opening five more training centers over the past 18 years.

“We have six programs altogether,” Joe Gori, director of employment initiatives with On Your Mar, reported. “Each DayHab program is set up differently but has a similar purpose: To help individuals gain life skills and experience in a business environment.”

The Café, which serves everything from eggs and pancakes to salads, wraps and burgers, is open from Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p. m. On Your Mark’s Chocolate Shop, which produces truffles, hand-dipped pretzels and graham crackers as well as a variety of other sweets, is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from 12 to 5 p. m.

On Your Mark also runs the Snack Zone in the Staten Island Children’s Museum at Snug Harbor and operates several vending machines at local businesses and community centers throughout the Island.

“Participants work with Coca- Cola products, maintain the machines and count the money, offering a wide range of different skill sets for each and every individual,” Gori said.

Non-food services are also a part of the On Your Mark vocational program: Novel-Tees, located on Victory Boulevard, creates a variety of custom printed Tshirts, hoodies, bags, novelty and promotional Items and On Your Mark’s Gift Shop, Exceptional Creations, sells wreaths, centerpieces and other handmade crafts.

“Each individual chooses where they want to work and what they want to be doing,” Gori concluded. “It’s a very fulfilling program that helps participants find their future.”— SIBT

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