In anticipation of Brooklyn Bounty, BHS’s premier fundraiser at 26 Bridge on October 22nd, we are profiling our participating restaurants and honorees of the Food & Heritage Awards. Below is a profile of ReConnect Café, recipient of our Pioneer Award, and part of our tasting menu.
ReConnect Café: Coffee to Buzz the Neighborhood
When I went to ReConnect Café to interview Associate Director Efrain Hernandez, I was a little nervous I’d be found out: I am not a coffee drinker. When I declined a cup of coffee and confessed my tastes to Efrain, it turned out I was in good company—he does not drink coffee either. To my relief, he remarked, “Black coffee, that’s gross,”and I knew I was in a place that was welcoming. Instead of coffee, he brought me a delightful and refreshing iced tea, the “Ruby Red Sipper,” made with blood orange and hibiscus tisane. Though the constant stream of customers evidenced the quality of their coffee, it made sense that Efrain wasn’t a coffee enthusiast. “It’s not about the coffee so much; this is a haven for the community—a family.”
Located in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Reconnect is a café with a mission. Started by Efrain and Father Jim O’Shea, ReConnect is focused on creating opportunity for local youth. Efrain’s early story is one he describes as unfortunately typical of his neighborhood: involvement with drugs and violence, prison, and the death of close friends. But Father O’Shea was always a strong presence as his mentor, and together they decided to take action for neighborhood youth. They started holding meetings to talk about area problems, which led to selling produce at farmers markets, Christmas trees at the holidays, Valentine’s Day baskets, and then with the help of an Angel donor, ReConnect Café was born. Efrain cut all ties with his former life and moved on—moving to a new neighborhood, changing his cell phone number, finding new friends and focusing on his work to support his wife and two small daughters.
It can be difficult to fully understand the pressures local youth are under, and Efrain explains that “some of the kids that come here, they don’t have money for basic hygiene products. How can you get a job if you can’t clean up?” ReConnect hires these at-risk youth between the ages of 16-25 as a first job and prepares them for further employment. Employees build personal foundations at ReConnect, including “rethinking themselves” as Father O’Shea put it. “They don’t fit anywhere. It’s a disconnect. There’s no a model for how to move forward in a positive way.” The Café holds a weekly meeting on Mondays where they can discuss how things are going and set goals and action plans for themselves. One of the employees, Brad, recently had team support in completing his GED, and ReConnect proudly displayed his achievement on their menu board.
Aside from benefiting its employees, ReConnect is a neighborhood spot to enjoy. Their beans are supplied by Brooklyn based Kitten Coffee, and their café design emulates classic Brooklyn stoops. A local tattoo artist’s designs are displayed on the wall, as well as photos and messages from loyal customers who cherish their neighborhood hangout. One customer told me, “There is a sense of community here. You can feel the urban fabric, it feels fresh. It’s not a Starbucks.” The dirty “S” word aside, the neighborhood has been steadily gentrifying. O’Shea acknowledges that this can cause mixed results for local residents, but ultimately it created a market for a café such as ReConnect. “This never would have made it here a few years ago,” he said.
For his part, Father O’Shea likes his coffee more than Efrain and me, but what keeps him coming back to ReConnect every day is the business of changing lives. He’s been working in Bed-Stuy since 1996 and has helped countless youth. “Our goal is to expand, open more cafés and create more jobs.”
As recipients of the Brooklyn Bounty Pioneer award, ReConnect Café will feature their signature pastries and beverage creations at the event. This is reason enough to be excited, but better yet, the ReConnect team will be present, and meeting them is a treat all its own.
Written by Avi Sher, Development Intern
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