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Marketplace Kitchen Table: Where students learn workplace teamwork

The overwhelming result has been the cultivation of a safe work environment in which to teach young people the skills they need to succeed in the workplace -- wherever that might ultimately be.

Great Barrington — The bustling atmosphere at the Marketplace Kitchen Table suggests residents and business owners on the north side of town are beyond thrilled to have the local eatery’s third iteration in the proverbial neighborhood. At the height of a tourist season that leaves Main Street riddled with bumper-to-bumper traffic almost constantly, the warm and friendly atmosphere at 240 Stockbridge Road is a welcome option not only for coffee and wholesome food — from eggs, sandwiches, salads and daily specials — but also for employment. A slew of local teens — many of whom are being employed for the first time under a model that has been percolating since partners Michelle Moore and Dave Renner along with Kevin and Claudia Schmit went into business together more than 24 years ago — are learning, first hand, what it means to be part of a professional team, one task at a time.

The Marketplace opened its inaugural location, on the corner of East Street at the metal bridge in town, more than two decades ago. Somewhere along the way, as families took shape, the partners realized there was a real need for a safe and nurturing place for their children to get their first work experience. Moore is clear when she articulates their goal from the start: to serve as mentors for young people in the community, and to provide work experience to those just starting out who might not be hired elsewhere due to their lack of experience. The overwhelming result has been the cultivation of a safe work environment in which to teach young people the skills they need to succeed in the workplace — wherever that might ultimately be.

Cafe manager, Robbie Robles, began with the Marketplace in 2008 at their first cafe location in Sheffield. He was part of the crew — a team member — and helped to grow what has become a well-established mentorship program that currently employs about four dozen young people in three cafe locations. A driving force behind the model is transparency which segues to visibility, and vice versa. Each position, from Department Specialist to Team Leader to Assistant Team Leader has a job description, and employees are given ample opportunity to interview as a means of moving up in the company. For Robles, this is where much of the excitement lies. He notes the enjoyment to be gleaned from “watching [young people’s] growth — from starting as one who does not know how to make coffee — to making a latte,” he explains. He goes on to add, “it is so rewarding, to stand on the sidelines, and be a coach — to watch each player play his/her [respective] position.” This, perhaps, is the single biggest contributor to the feeling of community at the Kitchen Table.

Greta Luf works on the line as an 'expediter.' Photo: Hannah Van Sickle
Greta Luf works on the line as an ‘expediter.’ Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

For 15-year-old Greta Luf, learning the ropes has been second nature. Her parents, Kathleen and chef Doug Luf [formerly of the Red Lion Inn] are partners in the Great Barrington venture. Of her first job, the younger Luf shared, “It’s nice to have responsibility. And do things that are really hands on. That way if I make a mistake, I can go back and physically re-do it. Which is not always possible in other areas like school.” For 17-year-old Jennyfer Vallejo, the feelings are similar. Vallejo enjoys, “working with friends” in an environment she calls “well-managed [with a] good flow”; this is the rising high school senior’s first job.

Chenoe Renner, age 21, has been in the business a bit longer. She grew up as her parents’ business took shape, rising through most of the ranks to her current position as Team Leader. She began working at the Guido’s location when she was 14, moved to the Pittsfield cafe when she was 16, and most recently has been on deck to “learn and see the progression of developing and opening a new restaurant.” Her involvement in the family business has proved rewarding for the Florida Atlantic University student who will return to college in the coming weeks to finish her degree in nursing. “We all work together really well,” Renner says of her team. As to the most important skills she will take with her? “Customer service and leadership, for sure.”

Jennyfer Vallejo on a recent lunch shift at the Marketplace Kitchen Table. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle
Jennyfer Vallejo on a recent lunch shift at the Marketplace Kitchen Table. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

“We are modeling professional adult behavior,” says Moore who helps her employees to build their resumes. This current model has created what Robles calls, “a nurturing environment that helps kids learn their first [job] skills.” Moore prides herself on sending each of her college students off at the end of summer with a letter of recommendation before returning to school. For many, this detailed account of the skills and tasks each has acquired, as well as a personal testimonial to each individual’s strengths on the job, is a “major benefit.” Skills run the gamut from effective communication and critical thinking to knife safety and customer service. “It doesn’t matter what you go on to do,” says Robles, noting, “our workers will take these lessons with them,” regardless of the field in which each lands. Some will “catch the bug” and go on to fall in love with food, while others will pursue wildly different professions.

Crystal Crupi was lulled back to the Berkshires by the idea of community. The Monument Mountain Regional High School graduate — whose father was the former owner of Cove Lanes — spent time in Miami before returning to the area with her husband who is at the Massachusetts Police Academy and is slated to join the Sheffield Police Department in the near future. Crupi, in her role as Team Leader, takes her job seriously — while recognizing, “people here are over the top friendly — it’s like a big working family.” She goes on to describe, “a great work environment where everyone helps one another.” Crupi will be a staple at the Great Barrington cafe, even after summer dwindles and the exodus of college students takes place, as the job training for high school students will continue year round.

In many ways, the Great Barrington eatery’s moniker is equal parts simple and symbolic. The kitchen table has long been seen as playing an integral role in so much of what we value as a culture, from sustenance to connection and all that lies between; and yet for so many young people, these basic elements are often lacking. A long community table running the length of the Great Barrington cafe is a visible reminder of the fact that these cornerstones are quite literally taking shape. Go check it out, and witness what Robles calls, “a real community builder–[where individuals are] leading by good example and professionalism” and learning to forge meaningful connections around the kitchen table, wherever that might be.


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