At the Lucy Flower Vocational High School, students manage and operate a small restaurant called the Flower Pot Cafe. The school, located across the street from the Garfield Park Conservatory, will open an extension of the popular Cafe in the Conservatory, in partnership with the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance and the Chicago Parks District.
The Flower High School is a public school on Chicago’s West Side that emphasizes entrepreneurship in its students by providing training and work experience in six school-based, student-run businesses. One of these is the Flower Pot Cafe, open to the public for lunch three days a week. Students run the Cafe entirely on their own; they are responsible for ordering, preparing, and serving food for approximately thirty customers a day. To get a sense of every aspect of the business, the students rotate as chefs, servers, waitstaff, and dishwashers during their first year. While the positions are unpaid, the students keep their tips when they wait on tables. Second year students become managers if they did well the year before.
Nancy Barrett, a home economics teacher at the school, came up with the idea for the Cafe in 1990, and gained the support of the school administration to start the business. A complete lunch at the Cafe, including a hot meal, salad bar, beverage, and dessert, costs patrons an average of about $5. The clientele, enticed by lunch specials like seafood fettucini, pot roast, and catfish, includes teachers, students, people from the neighborhood, and tourists visiting the Garfield Park Conservatory.
In 1996, the Flower Pot Cafe will open another small cafe in the lobby of the Conservatory in the form of a cart with a few small tables and chairs. The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance initiated the arrangement with the Cafe and the Lucy Flower High School to attract more visitors to the Conservatory and establish ties with local institutions.
In 1991, Barrett secured a $30,000 grant from a government-funded program supporting vocational education, which paid for equipment to start the Flower Pot Cafe. The following year, Les Dames d’Escoffier, a group of women in the restaurant industry, donated a total of $15,000 to the Cafe for industrial equipment, tables, and other furnishings. Student and faculty volunteers scrubbed and painted a room on the third floor of the school, decorating it with lace curtains, table cloths, and flowers.
With the Flower Pot Cafe well established at the high school, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund committed $12,500 to establish the cafe cart in the Conservatory, also to be run by the school. Les Dames, meanwhile, is matching this donation with additional cafe equipment and is helping get the new business off the ground by helping students conduct surveys and marketing studies.
So far, profits at the Cafe have been small, since the primary goal of the Cafe is to train students for future employment in the food service industry, not to make money for the school. The school has established a “Flower Institute” to allow profits to be reinvested directly in to the Cafe as the business grows.
When current renovations at the high school are complete, the Cafe will move to a new space on the first floor with six windows looking out on the street and the Conservatory across the parkway. Street level access, increased visibility, a new awning, and signs should boost patronage at the Cafe.
For the satellite cafe at the Conservatory, plans are underway to couple it with an additional student-run venture, a gift shop proposed by another local public school. Bus and rail stops are being planned near the Conservatory; they should improve accessibility and may potentially attract tourists.
The Flower Pot Cafe has generated a great deal of interest in the community and beyond. Recent visitors to the cafe have included Vice President Gore, three Congressmen, the Mayor of Chicago, and Julia Child.
Students’ experience working at the Flower Pot Cafe has been helpful in terms of their future schooling and job placement in the industry. One graduate’s college tuition was covered by her employer, and she rose quickly to a management position; another graduated from college and is training with a chef. For students seeking a college degree after graduating from Lucy Flower, there is an agreement between the high school and Chicago’s junior colleges to allow students to place out of several first year classes.
At its new street level location, the Flower Pot Cafe has the potential to serve as a neighborhood gathering place. As for the cafe in the Conservatory, it will add another element to the visitor’s experience at the Conservatory, and will hopefully increase patronage at this significant landmark.
Nancy Barrett, Lucy Flower Vocational High School (312) 534-6755.
Matt Frazell, project director, Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance (312) 638-1766.