Providence Business News
Rebuilding hope, and a bit of local history
:By Mary Lhowe
Contributing Writer Providence Business News
Odd as it sounds, there is common ground between old diners in which people once shared coffee, eggs and companionship, and inner-city teenage males labeled wayward or delinquent and incarcerated at the R.I. Training School for Youth in Cranston.
That common ground is a patch of land behind the carpentry classroom at the Training School where the young men are now doing a full-fledged historic renovation of a vintage diner.
Formerly known as Hickey’s Diner of Taunton, it is the first of several defunct diners they will restore while learning an assortment of vocational trades, from metalworking to upholstering. Hickey’s, which belongs to the American Diner Museum, is expected to reopen as a functioning diner in Providence following the restoration.
A second eatery, the former Louis’s Diner of Concord, N.H., will be used by the Training School’s culinary arts program as a class laboratory. A third, Mike’s Diner, formerly located near the train station in Providence, will go on the road to promote the project.
The idea was hatched a few years ago by John Scott, community liaison at the Training School, and Bill Tribelli, a cookbook author and cooking teacher there. The search for their first diner led them to Daniel Zilka, head of the American Diner Museum in Providence and the go-to guy for diner history in Rhode Island.
Zilka liked the idea of having Training School residents rehabilitate the diners and in the process learn vocational trades. He suggested that the school keep one restored diner as a culinary lab, then restore others to sell and put into operation across the state.
They called the project “New Hope.”
“We are dealing with objects and people that have been cast aside; that’s why we like the name New Hope,” said Zilka. “We are giving the students a new hope to have some skills so that when they go back to their communities they can say, ‘I don’t want to steal cars anymore; I want to get a job.’ ”
As the men shared their idea with others, partners began joining the effort:
• New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket is designing a coffee blend for a new line of coffee named New Hope, after the project’s name. Proceeds from the sale of the new blend, which will be introduced at the Scituate Art Festival Oct. 6 and 7, will benefit the project. Later, Mike’s Diner may serve and sell the New Hope coffee.
• Members of a club at Bryant University, Students in Free Enterprise, will create a marketing plan for the New Hope coffee line and a business plan for rehabbed diners that may be sold to private operators.
• The R.I. Small Business Development Center at Johnson & Wales University is prepared to help sell the restored diners to private operators. The center can help provide loan assistance and serve as a conduit for distributing the Bryant students’ business plan.
• Developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, which is involved in several large projects in Rhode Island, may place one of the first rehabilitated diners in its American Locomotive Works complex in Providence. Struever also contributed $5,000 to get the new coffee line going and to start the work on Mike’s Diner.
• Students at New England Institute of Technology will soon begin rebuilding a 1954 Chevy truck of the exact model as the original truck that hauled Hickey’s Diner, for future use by Hickey’s.
From the start, Scott and Tribelli insisted on two principles: The project must raise funds to support itself, and it must seek help from people and resources in the community.
The New Hope coffee is an example of a social enterprise, a model in which nonprofit organizations develop and sell products or services to raise money to support their work. An example is Amos House in Providence, a soup kitchen that has created profit-making businesses in school lunch and catering services.
The requirement that the project would depend on community resources is based on Scott’s and Tribelli’s conviction that the young men and women at the Training School are the responsibility of their own families and neighborhoods.
“Kids in the Training School are not the Training School’s kids; they are the community’s kids,” Scott said. “We realized early on that we would need to reach out to the community for partners.”
Along with the major contributors, many others have helped out. In the summer of last year, when work on Hickey’s Diner got under way, people from The Steel Yard in Providence taught the residents how to do ironworking. Soon, Andrew Panciotti, co-owner of Providence Cornice and an expert in metalworking, will help students re-create the copper roof of Mike’s Diner. A paint company has donated paint; an automotive company has donated parts for the 1954 Chevy; a graphic designer donated work on the New Hope coffee label.
“I have never seen so many people from so many walks to life coming together so quickly,” said David Greenan, adviser to the Bryant students. “People are saying, ‘What are you looking for and what do you need?’ It is a collaboration of different segments to society to do something that hasn’t been done.”
“The diner project is small in scale but comprehensive enough to teach all the trades,” Scott said.
“The project teaches history, math skills, vocation training. The idea is that when students are exposed to these trades, maybe they can identify an area of interest for their future.”
“People outside think of the Training School as prison for kids, but we are providing rich opportunities here,” Scott said. “But if we don’t provide marketable skills in the vocations, we are not serving our population.”
Scott said the typical profile of a Training School student is a minority young man about 16 to 18 years old from an inner city neighborhood with fifth-grade level reading and math skills. Most will be at the school about six to nine months. Another teacher said many of the residents have gotten the message in various ways that they were losers, and always would be.
Scott added, “These kids might not have been in circumstances where they ever got a pat on the shoulder. But once they realize what they have done is appreciated, they start taking pride in their work. That might not have happened before.”
In a cooking classroom suffused with the smell of frying bacon, Tribelli, the culinary arts teacher, pointed with pride to photos of former students and their culinary masterworks. “We have kids who have just lost their compass,” Tribelli said. “They come here and we can help turn them around.”
On a recent afternoon, behind the carpentry classroom of the Training School, a couple of students and teachers watched from the ground as, high up on a ladder, a student carefully pried a rotten plank off the side of Hickey’s Diner. In historic renovation, every piece of a structure that is unsalvageable has to be carefully documented and reproduced exactly.
Anthony, one of the program participants watching from the ground, said, “When you take everything off it goes fast; when you put it together, it goes slow.” He said he enjoyed an earlier, mini-project that the students did: reupholstering some restaurant booths that Zilka had come across in his diner research. The booths are now at work in a Chicopee, Mass., restaurant. “The upholstery was fun,” Anthony said. “I would like to go see those booths where they are now.”
Scott said one project partner, Preserve Rhode Island, gave the project a grant that is being used to buy a tool belt and a set of tools for each participating resident when he leaves the Training School “On any job site,” Zilka said, “the first question they ask is, ‘Do you have your own tools?’ These kids can say, ‘Yes, I am ready to work.’ ”