North Side restau­ra­teur’s ‘so­cial en­trepreneur­ship’ brings wide­spread com­mu­nity ben­e­fits

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

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

PHO­TOS: MATT MIXON

The Tan­dem owner Caitlin Cullen.

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