North Side restaurateur’s ‘social entrepreneurship’ brings widespread community benefits
Teresa Moore understands what it means to struggle. More importantly, she knows what it feels like when someone throws her a lifeline.
Moore — now a 20-year-old resident of Milwaukee’s North Side — was searching for work in October 2016 when she received some startling news from family in Gary, Indiana.
“My family called to tell me that my brother had been shot to death in a gas station. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Moore said. “The next day my father stopped breathing.”
Two weeks earlier, her father had suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma.
Not knowing what to do next and still needing a job, she stopped in at The Tandem, a newly opened restaurant at 1848 W. Fond du Lac Ave., in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood. Owner Caitlin Cullen didn’t bat an eye.
“Caitlin hired me out of instinct. She took me in,” Moore said. “The restaurant family became my extended family. I call Caitlin ‘Mom.’”
When Moore fell out with a sister with whom she was living, Cullen gave her a futon and furnishings so she could move to her first apartment. Moore’s work at The Tandem provided the financial security she needed to go out on her own, much like it does for her peers and fellow employees.
“People who work here don’t usually quit,” said Moore, who also is pursuing a singing career. “We love Caitlin and we want to make sure she’s OK, just like she makes sure we’re all OK.”
GAINING NEIGHBORHOOD ACCEPTANCE
Moore, who has gone on to become an experienced server and bartender, wasn’t the first person Cullen took in and she won’t be the last.
In fact, according to Cullen, 59 young workers — most in their teens or early 20s — have been through her doors during the restaurant’s first 16 months, all with the idea of gaining enough work experience to get better jobs at other restaurants and businesses.
Not all of them worked out, but she currently supports a roster of 26 full- and part-time workers, many of whom moonlight from other jobs just a day or two each week in order to stay connected to the place — and to the person who gave them their start.
“I wasn’t planning on being the white lady who owns a fried chicken place in a primarily black neighborhood,” said Cullen, 30, a native of Detroit’s Rochester suburb. “But there has always been a social missionary inside of me, and she changes her approach as times go by.”
Cullen’s current mission required a change of profession and location to land her in what was once Walter Schmidt’s Tavern, a popular Milwaukee watering hole from 1935 to 1968. To succeed, Cullen realized early that she would have to gain neighborhood acceptance and approval from those responsible for rejuvenating Lindsay Heights.
It was Cullen’s appreciation of the neighborhood, and especially her willingness to employ local young people, that helped her win that approval, according to Venice Williams, executive director of Alice’s Garden, a community garden and urban farm across Fond du Lac Avenue from the restaurant.
“When we look at white people coming into the community, it’s often something that happens to us, but not with us,” said Williams, who presides over The Table, the urban ministry that oversees the gardens. “From conversations with Caitlin, it was clear to me what her mission was and who she wanted to hire. She was deliberate about helping people who never thought about working in a kitchen.
“I would call this Caitlin’s ministry, although she may not use that word,” Williams added. “Without a doubt, her model has had a positive economic and social impact on the community.”
LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO LINDSAY HEIGHTS
Cullen always loved to cook, but never thought she would own a restaurant. In fact, when she was growing up in Rochester with five siblings in a boisterous Irish-Catholic family and single-parent household, her sights were set on education.
Thanks to the generosity of her grandfather, she attended a private Catholic high school.
“The school was nice, but we were the broke-est family there,” Cullen said. “As one comedian said, the nuns taught me so well that I don’t have to believe anymore, and I am no longer religious.”
Cullen later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan
The Tandem owner Caitlin Cullen.