Picture it: you snake behind a red velvet rope, enter underneath a golden-lettered marquee and make your way down a hallway decked out in black-and-white photos of jazz musicians in gilded frames. A lounge edged with red velvet banquettes awaits, where you can order classic cocktails like an Aviation or a Sazerac underneath the light of chandeliers. But this is not Paris or New York City. You’re in San Francisco, in the heart of the Bayview, at a jazz supper club staffed by at-risk and formerly incarcerated youth.
The upscale vibe is an intentional choice on the part of Teresa Goines, who founded Old Skool Cafe out of her living room 18 years ago, determined to expose others to what she calls the “underbelly” of society.
Friends and colleagues encouraged Goines to aim for something simpler to help the youth she had encountered as a Juvenile Corrections Officer—maybe a sandwich shop. But Goines wouldn’t give up on her vision of a classy, fine dining establishment despite having zero restaurant experience. “People thought she was insane,” said Emily Cohen, a longtime patron and supporter of the restaurant. “But the fact that it made it 10 years and through a pandemic is a testament to Teresa’s determination.”
Old Skool closed for just one month during shelter-in-place, shifting their youth trainings onto Zoom. As an essential business, the restaurant was able to continue operations when their young staff needed it most. The establishment has also benefited from the generous support of their donors.
“So many amazing donors and foundations stepped up to help us, otherwise we'd be closed,” Goines said. Many of the restaurant’s biggest money-makers, including their gala, private catering, and regular customers, dried up because of the pandemic. Old Skool is not only a non-profit or a rehabilitation program—it’s a fully functional restaurant with an expansive menu and drink list.
“The young people are running the whole thing. They’re the closers, the dishwashers, bussers, the servers. We teach them the marketing, the fundraising. Everything we do is an opportunity for them to learn and get paid immediately,” Goines said. Old Skool graduate Samantha Luveano designed custom wine labels for the restaurant’s eponymous vintages produced by the Black-owned winery Indigene Cellars.
The non-profit is celebrating 10 years in their Mendell Plaza home while providing a model for helping at-risk youth. “This is a program that should be duplicated across California and across the country,” said Hala Hijazi, who works on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and has known Goines since 2005.
As proof of its success, Goines points to the recidivism rate of those who have completed at least one year in the program, which by her calculations is 10%. The national average is nearly 70% three years after release, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and a national conversation about mass incarceration, Goines said people reached out to her to say they finally understand what she does. “I'm really hopeful for the future, because I'm hearing on both sides that there is a bit of unity in this problem. We need to do things differently and better.”
Working as a Juvenile Corrections Officer in Santa Barbara County, Goines encountered kids who didn’t expect to live until their 18th birthday—who felt thrown away and like their lives didn’t matter. Instead of dreaming of prom or sports, according to Goines, some would call up and ask to be returned to the confinement center because they felt more cared for there than in their freedom. “That just ripped my heart apart,” Goines said.
Haikiem Maddox, who goes by Keem, has been in the training program for six months. “It’s been keeping me out of trouble and helping me a lot,” Maddox said, who will be graduating high school in a month. Maddox has had other jobs before, but he said the program component makes this one unique. “The life coaches check in with you,” he said. “And how you are doing as a person.”
Luveano has known Teresa for 20 years, having first met her at a gang prevention program in middle school. She now works as a barber and is writing a book. Goines keeps her in the loop about various opportunities. “She’s an angel, a mother,” Luveano said of Goines. “She’d lift you up anytime you felt down.”
People refer to the youth in the program as “Teresa’s kids” and one of Goines’s nicknames is “Mama T.” The sense of family provides support for those who might not have a stable home and a substitute for the security and protection gang membership offers. “She has adopted so many of the kids here,” said Eric McDonnell, who lives near the restaurant with his wife Hydra Mendoza.
“This establishment has meant a lot to us as Bayview residents,” Mendoza said. Goines also lives within walking distance of the restaurant, which makes it easy for those in the program to come by her house.
In the same way that Goines didn’t give up on her dream of starting Old Skool, she encourages the youth in the program to follow hearts. “When they come in, I have them write a dream list, the sky's the limit. Just write it down,” Goines said.
It seems to be working. At the 10-year anniversary celebration, one Old Skool graduate talked about her dream of being the first Black woman to win an Oscar for original screenplay. “Come hungry, leave inspired,” is the restaurant’s tagline.
Others are catching on. Old Skool benefits from notable supporters such as Steph and Ayesha Curry, Cheech Marin, and Questlove. Mayor London Breed declared April 12 “Old Skool Cafe Day in the city of San Francisco.”
Rick Welts, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Golden State Warriors, donated a grant of $150,000 to Old Skool from the NBA Foundation at the 10-year celebration. “Every time I cross paths with Teresa I feel full of hope,” Welts said. “Old Skool is not just representing the best of San Francisco, but the best of the country.”
“What [Goines] accomplished is a miracle,” Hijazi said. “Through integrity, honor, and hard work.”
With its grilled shrimp and peanut butter stew, Old Skool is not only satiating physical hunger, but an ethical and spiritual one. In a city full of challenges and divisions, the restaurant offers an old-fashioned dish: hope.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org