Toronto restaurant teaches skills to those who face employment barriers

A downtown restaurant is doing much more than serving food — they're also providing opportunities for those who might have a tough time finding work.

Hawthorne Food and Drink is run by The Hospitality Workers Training Centre

Donald Williams, executive chef (left) and Tim Freear, sous chef (right) help teach culinary trainees at Hawthorne Food and Drink essential skills in the kitchen. (Martin Trainor / CBC News)

On the surface, Hawthorne Food and Drink on Richmond St. E appears to be a regular restaurant — but many of the people who are serving, clearing tables and preparing the food there, have unique stories to tell.

Shane O'Halloran is one of them.

He went through the dishwasher training program at Hawthorne and is now employed at the restaurant. Now, he helps train some of the new participants.

Shane O’Halloran went through the training program and is now employed at Hawthorne Food and Drink. (Martin Trainor / CBC News)

As someone who works with a disability, he's faced some challenges throughout his employment experience.

"I wasn't the best at speed," he said. "But I'm good at the job."

O'Halloran says he would like to see more employers ask people with disabilities what they need to succeed in the workplace.

"It's just not really knowing what to ask, being too uncomfortable to say, what can I do to help?" he said.

"The modifications I need are very few, but there are a lot of disabled individuals that I know, if only they were asked that question they would be able to perform perfectly well in any job."

Barriers to employment

Mandie Abrams is the executive director of the Hospitality Workers Training Centre which operates Hawthorne.

She says the training programs include front of house, culinary skills and dishwasher and range from four to 12 weeks.

Mandie Abrams, Executive Director of Hospitality Workers Training Centre says they help trainees find placements and jobs after the training. (Martin Trainor / CBC News)

The training includes certifications like Food Handlers and SmartServe.

"We specifically work with individuals who are not able to compete for entry level jobs in the job market today," Abrams said. "They might have a disability, be new to Canada, they might have low literacy."

The training instructors are industry professionals.

'Some people need a push'

Donald Williams is the executive chef at Hawthorne. He says his background has played a key role in being able to train people in culinary skills.

"Growing up for me I struggled, I found myself on the streets at one point in life," he said.

"Because of the experience I had, I wanted to share this with young cooks and people in general who needed these skills."

Over the last four years, 200 people completed the program, and 75 per cent of them were employed afterwards. Williams believe that creating a safe environment for people to learn and get a fresh start is the key.

"Some people just need a push in life, here we do that."

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