High school seniors launch student-run café



Seniors from Food and Finance High School and their advisor Katherine Taveras  launch a new café on October 9. Photo: Emaad Akhtar.

Food and Finance High School will have a watershed moment when it launches its first-ever student-run café on October 9. “This is a transformational year for us,” said Katherine Taveras, the café’s program manager. “The students have never been exposed to business ideas and food-costing. This will allow them to experience the whole package.”

Located on 50th Street between 10th and 11th avenues, FFHS is New York City’s only public culinary high school. There are around 350 students from all five boroughs, mainly from low-income backgrounds, who are selected by lottery. They learn about cooking, baking, and general kitchen ambiance, and can graduate with a culinary industry-endorsed career and technical education diploma – which offers culinary college credits – if they pass four exams.

“If you don’t pass the exams, you don’t get to enjoy the fun stuff,” said Taveras. FFHS students who do well are rewarded with paid internships at the city’s top restaurants in their senior year. But this semester, instead of internships, five seniors who showed leadership skills, initiative and demonstrable business acumen were chosen to run the café.

A quintet of 17-year-olds will operate the café from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. every weekday, with fellow students and school staff as their primary customers. Pastries, muffins, cookies and bagels will range from $1 to $3, while coffee will be a dollar, according to Taveras.

“We are the mini-CIA, the mini Johnson and Wales of the high school world,” said FFHS Chef Instructor William Doherty, referring to two prestigious private culinary schools. “The students’ commitment and quality of product will be higher because other school cafés aren’t as focused,” he said. “Our students are well respected; restaurants love them, universities love them.”

Tracy Chan, a senior from Spanish Harlem, is nervous about being selected. “I do feel pressure because it’s only five of us,” she said, adding she’s afraid they’ll make mistakes and people will notice. “I wouldn’t want that to hurt our image as a business.”

Another Harlem native, Gabriella Perez, transferred to FFHS as a sophomore after being rejected as a first-year applicant. “I felt happy that I had finally achieved my dream,” she said. But Perez is also nervous about running the café. “You have to make sure it’s not only benefiting you but everyone in the community,” she said. “You have to prove that you can do certain things.”

 The students will rotate among four primary managerial responsibilities: cash intake, production inventory, floor captain, and entry level.

Taveras, a Dominican Republic native who moved to the U.S. when she was 8, made a career in the culinary industry as a pastry chef and working in restaurants. “These students will create the café’s fundamental structure for future years,” she said. “They have some pressure, but haven’t realized it yet.”

Bronx native Steven Roque hopes “people will recognize I was part of a group that created a store out of a small retail space.” One student is already thinking beyond the café. Thomas Baez said he would “love” to earn scholarships from the experience. “You want to get the full ride, like CIA or Johnson and Wales.”

Some students have enrolled in the prestigious Careers through Culinary Arts Program, known as C-CAP, an annual cooking competition whose winners earn scholarships and placement in top culinary schools. Taveras, herself a C-CAP alumna from Monroe College, said preparation begins two to three months in advance of the competition, which consists of preliminaries and finals. “I used to be at practice by 5 a.m. till 8 a.m., which is when regular school started, and I also had a job after school,” she said. “Students who really want it will obtain it and deal with the stresses it brings.”

Brooklyn-based Issoufou Hama, who works at a meatball shop through C-CAP, is clear about his goals. “I want to major in medicine, minor in marketing and business, so this is like a foot in the door,” he said. “Someday I want to run my own business.”

Although the student-run café is a new venture, FFHS tried pop-ups last year, along with offering internships, but decided to make some changes. Eliza Loehr, executive director of the Food Education Fund, a non-profit that raises money for FFHS, presided over those initiatives. “A pop-up on top of school and an internship was too much for the students,” she said.

Instead of coming in at 6 a.m. everyday, students will arrive at 7 a.m. to work at the café as their internship. Once café duties conclude at 9:30 a.m., they will attend regular classes until 12:30 p.m., before running stock inventory checks until 2:30 or 3 p.m., said Taveras.

Hama’s mother, Aissa Bagna, is excited about her son’s opportunity to be a part of the new venture. “I am happy for him because many kids don’t get to do what he does,” she said. “I hope he gets into a good college, and receives many scholarships.”

Chan’s mother, Liu Guan Mei, is equally happy about the exposure her daughter will get. “I’m proud of her for having a chance to work at the school café and hold a huge responsibility.”

With their taxing schedules, the teenagers recognize they don’t have the same amount of free time as other FFHS classmates, or students at other schools who don’t have to juggle both class and work.“This is what I live for,” said Perez, who will work five hours every weekday, in addition to her café responsibilities. “I don’t feel the need to find time for people.”

But Roque has a different perspective. “I have more than enough time to hang out with friends and go on dates,” he said. “The only sacrifice is not having time to myself to stay home or sleep in.”

Despite an intense schedule, the students are committed to the cafe. “My ultimate objective is to learn how to run a business,” said Chan. “And become a pastry chef.”