Social OTR is helping build Cincinnati’s culinary talent pool and the community surrounding itKevin Michell Social OTR, run by the Corporation for Findlay Market (CFFM) in partnership with CityLink Center, is a nonprofit restaurant and bar connecting the area’s underemployed with local job opportunities in the food and beverage industry.
But it’s not a simple placement service. Instead, it’s the site of 12 weeks of the Findlay Culinary Training Program, a 16-week, no-cost training course that provides people the skills and experience needed to start a culinary career. The program is open to anyone 18 or older, including those with criminal convictions except arson and sexual offenses.
“There’s opportunity here,” says Anthony Berin of CFFM and general manager of Social OTR. “It’s been a real goal of [Findlay] Market to keep the community here. We don’t want to push people out; we want to raise people up.”
Such a model could have been done many different ways, but when CFFM and CityLink turned their attention to the local food and beverage labor gap, they focused on providing dignity alongside job opportunities and the necessary kitchen training.
“Within our immediate community—the market district itself—and just outside of it,” Berin says, “we’ve got this whole group of folks who are underemployed and have high barriers to employment.”
Those barriers can feel insurmountable to people who run up against them. Hence, the Findlay Culinary Training Program uses its first four weeks to refine students’ life skills—such as problem solving, conflict resolution and financial management—at CityLink Center before beginning the three-month paid internship in Social OTR’s kitchen.
Berin describes the restaurant as a product of wanting people—especially potential employers—to respect what the program’s students have gone through. “We don’t want to waste money and time by training too high and we don’t want to waste everyone’s time and experience by training too low,” he says.
Social OTR was constructed to fit that end. The interior, designed by Platte Architecture and Design and adorned with art from local muralist Cody Gunningham, is vibrant and welcoming. The menu, featuring small plates of internationally inspired tapas, is refined and varied. The latter was built with the goal of giving students as wide a breadth of education in different cuisines, flavor profiles and cooking techniques as possible in 12 weeks’ time.
“The style of dining, the concept of the menu,” Berin explains, “it lends itself so well to education in food.”
After learning various roles in the kitchen in four-week terms, groups of students progress and graduate together while new classes fill the positions vacated. Graduating students from the Findlay Culinary Training Program isn’t the end goal; providing them a meaningful career path is. Social OTR actively assists students in resume building, interview training and job placement. Berin foresees graduating 75 to 80 people in Social OTR’s first year of operations.
More than anything, the mission is to give people who, for any reason, don’t feel worthy or capable of attaining sustainable job a means to achieve a career of gratifying work, meaningful benefits and lofty advancement.
“In this industry, you can be the best in the entire world without education or money,” Berin says, “as long as you show up with a willingness to learn and a solid work ethic. That opportunity is there for our students.”