Hartford's Downtown gained another dining option this week, and one that's been a long time coming. For the two institutions behind it, fresh food and good coffee are just the starters. WNPR's J Holt has more.
When the Downtown branch of the Hartford Public Library underwent a major renovation in the early two thousands, a three story tall, glass walled atrium space was built right up front, with the intention of it becoming a cafe.
Matt Poland- "We always saw that as an opportunity to be a good thing for the customers who do come here, but also as a way to draw in more people."
Library CEO Matt Poland says that discussions with potential vendors in the Hartford community started 8 or 9 years ago, yet since the space was finished in 2008, it's remained mostly empty. Whenever the Library board asked about progress, he'd have to report
Poland- "It's coming, it's coming, it's coming."
That all changed this week.
Poland- "Good morning, and welcome to Kitchen at Hartford Public Library."
Kitchen is a name some in Hartford will recognize as a farm to table cafe and catering business based at Billings Forge, in the city's Frog Hollow neighborhood. As with their original location, the focus of this new branch at the Library goes beyond the food and coffee served over its counter.
Cary Wheaton - "Its real mission purpose is to provide training and opportunities for folks with multiple barriers to employment, who are Hartford Residents"
Cary Wheaton is the Executive Director of Billings Forge Community Works, a non profit organization which owns the Billings Forge apartment complex, and owns and operates the Kitchen. Embedded in the business is a job training program.
Wheaton- "At any given time we'll have two to four people, who work with us for about three months. They are paid for their time at the Kitchen, and they learn every part of working in a commercial kitchen."
Billings Forge had been laying the groundwork to expand the Kitchen program since soon after it launched in 2010, and saw enough potential in this Main Street location to look past a detail that had complicated the Library's search for a vendor. There is no commercial production kitchen on site, so whoever signed on would need to prepare the food elsewhere. For Billings Forge, that challenge was outweighed by the opportunity to make an impact in Downtown Hartford. The organizations began discussing possibilities over two years ago.
Poland- "And as we looked at the goals of both of our organizations it was clear that at a very foundational level, we were here to serve the people of Hartford in a way that would make their lives more successful, and their families more prosperous."
The two organizations partnered in planning the details of the cafe and its business plan, and received financial support from the City, Connecticut's Department of Economic and Community Development, and their own donors to get it off the ground. Now that the new branch is open, Billings Forge expects to double the number of job training opportunities it provides, and increase the program's scope, and an on site teaching kitchen will be used for classes run in partnership with Capitol Community College, and CT Works. Additionally, the Kitchen is now the Library's in house caterer.
To start, the Kitchen is open weekdays from 8-4, what Wheaton sees as a barebones schedule, and for which she is confident there will be enough demand.
Wheaton- "Because we really do try to run successful businesses, whose only added expense is the mission driven expense."
She is hopeful business will be strong enough to enable the Kitchen to increase its hours and become a vibrant addition to Hartford's Main St.