Café Overlook trains 150 employees in workforce development program

Café Overlook in the Franklin County courthouse complex celebrates a successful first anniversary with a steady stream of regular and new customers daily. Still, the restaurant’s most significant accomplishments lie a little deeper.

Since the spring of 2022, the restaurant has doubled as a workforce development program, hiring employees who are social services clients. The employees earn a livable wage of at least $15 an hour and have benefits while learning job readiness skills. Once they graduate from the program, they also receive help finding a stable career in or outside the restaurant industry.

“Café Overlook has shown just how successful a workforce development program like this can be. About 150 employees have completed the program thus far, with many of those employees now working in higher-paying jobs in the industry. Others have been able to use what they’ve learned and moved onto stable middle-class careers in other fields,” said Board of Commissioners President John O’Grady.

“And it’s worth emphasizing that this is just the start of this program’s success.”

The café is on the 16th floor at 373 S. High St. and serves breakfast and lunch to visitors of the county complex and county workers. The restaurant offers daily specials, a grill, a salad bar, baristas that provide a variety of coffees, and more. County employees can even order from their computers, and then are texted when their meal is ready.

“The restaurant’s success is thanks to the passionate local restauranteurs and social service organizations who go above and beyond to help employees. Their dedication shows in everything they do, such as helping employees with housing, healthcare, and other services,” Commissioner Kevin L. Boyce said.

“Word about the program’s success is spreading. We have a list of potential employees waiting for a chance to start.”

A group of restauranteurs own and operate the café through a non-profit corporation called Service! Relief for Hospitality Workers. Managers include Sangeeta Lakhani (formerly of The Table), Letha Pugh (co-owner of Bake Me Happy), and Matthew Heaggans (owner of Preston’s).

“Café Overlook has been transformational for many of our neighbors who want to move up the economic ladder with a rewarding job they can take pride in. This program provides basic assistance, training, and opportunities for entrepreneurship, allowing many to enter right into a new, middle-class career,” said Commissioner Erica C. Crawley.

“This is why the Board of Commissioners made the investment in this initiative, because we believe that with the right training and supportive services anyone can be put in a position to thrive and not just survive.”

Employees of Café Overlook earn healthcare benefits and have access to subsidized childcare, uniforms, and transportation. 

“Our participants are eager to learn and have been the biggest cheerleaders for each other. It is also incredibly rewarding for our core team, as we learn and grow together. Nothing can replace the emotion of seeing a program participant thrive and take pride in their work as they learn to prepare fresh, quality food in an environment that also holistically supports them,” said the café’s executive director, Sangeeta Lakhani.

“As a result, the café has a positive atmosphere that seems to spread to the customers.”

The commissioners committed in 2016 to pay their employees a living wage and then raised their minimum to $15 per hour in 2019 and then $17 an hour in August 2022. In addition, the commissioners sponsor several other workforce development programs spanning from apprenticeships in the skilled trades, licensed commercial drivers, computer skills for women of color, positions in county government, and more.

Café Overlook is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Deba Uwadiae
Deba Uwadiae is a Nigeran American international journalist, Editor-In-Chief and publisher of the New Americans Magazines, Columbus, Ohio, United States. He has reported events and stories from different countries in Africa, Europe, Asia and North America.

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