I love the fact that my day goes by so fast," says Craig Dixon, chef/manager at Cafe Options. That day starts plenty early: Dixon is at the fast-casual restaurant at 1650 Curtis Street by 6 a.m. every weekday, to unlock the doors and greet the customers who start coming in when the place officially opens at 6:30 — and to watch all the people who don't come in, walking right past Cafe Options with their Starbucks cups when they could be drinking an Americano made here from Elevations, a homegrown coffee company.
Dixon thinks about what a few more customers could mean to Cafe Options, which didn't just bring a new breakfast and lunch option to downtown when it opened on April 1, but also opened up all kinds of options for the people who train here.
Cafe Options is a project of Work Options for Women, a ten-year-old nonprofit founded by Toni Schmid whose mission is to combat homelessness and poverty by providing women with the skills they need to have successful careers in the food industry through a sixteen-week training program. WOW already runs the cafeteria in the Denver Department of Human Services building at 1200 Federal Boulevard, where it serves several hundred meals a day and brings in $300,000 a year, a substantial portion of WOW's $900,000 annual budget. The program, which graduates forty to fifty students a year, was already turning out workers ready for much more than careers as burger flippers, and Cafe Options was envisioned as almost a graduate school for the most promising of these WOW trainees, where four interns at a time could hone their culinary skills, working eight hours a day in a real restaurant environment.
Some of them hone their skills so well that Dixon often hires WOW grads when he has an opening, adding to a staff that includes workers with far more traditional restaurant resumés.
Gail was the first WOW trainee to become a full-fledged employee. She now comes in at 6 a.m., too, to get breakfast going; the kitchen offers two specials each day. After that, she'll move to the bakery, where she makes cookies, scones and cinnamon rolls, often from her own recipes. If Cafe Options is the equivalent of graduate school, Gail did her thesis in baking, coming in every Monday with new recipes she'd tried out at home over the weekend, recipes that Dixon has since incorporated into the Cafe Options offerings.
Gail heard about WOW from her caseworker at Human Services, and although she'd always liked to bake, "When I first walked in, it was overwhelming," she remembers. But she caught on fast, and now Cafe Option regulars will call to make sure there's a piece of their favorite confection set aside for them. One of the most popular: Oatmeal Freddies, named for Gail's cat and made with oatmeal, peanut butter, sliced almonds, white chocolate chips and dark chocolate chips.
Cafe Options offers two soups a day, and they have their fans, too. Zucchini parmesan is the top seller, says assistant manager Zoie Keast, but the kitchen also turns out ratatouille, posole and baked potato soups. The salads and sandwich offerings may sound more standard — French dip, El Cubano, baked Caprese and grilled eggplant pita sandwiches; green papaya, tabbouleh and Caesar salads — but there's nothing standard about their preparation. Dixon and his crew make everything from scratch, everything from the mustard and pickles to the brine-soaked turkey and chicken and the freshly roasted beef for the Rare Roast Beef sandwich (see review below). The bacon for the Cobb salad is broiled with brown sugar and red-pepper flakes; the tomato buttermilk dressing is made fresh every day from Romas that have roasted for five hours. "We're always roasting Romas," Dixon says.
The same care was put into the design for Cafe Options. WOW looked for the ideal spot to create this cafe for close to two years, then finally signed a space on the ground floor of the US Bank building (in the winter, the 2,000 workers will be able to come down through a back door, avoiding the elements). WOW spent $600,000 on a buildout designed by Semple Brown Design and constructed by Spectrum General Contractors, restaurant professionals who worked on Rioja and Racines, too. The result is a room that's bright and airy, with comfortable chairs, free wi-fi access and patio seating out front. On one side of the room, just beyond the counter and cash register, customers can watch workers assemble their meals in a Chipotle-like setup, while the trainees can interact with the people they're about to feed. (A WOW focus group revealed some concern that homeless people would be making the food — but the view inside Cafe Options is nothing but reassuring. And hunger-inducing.)
Beyond the assembly areas is a big, beautifully appointed kitchen, the classroom where Dixon can teach skills that range from proper communication to how to use a knife properly. "We've all worked for good chefs and bad chefs," he says, "and this is my chance to pass down what I've learned." A native of Boston, Dixon worked as a chef in Breckenridge before taking a job as sous chef at Vita; after leaving there, he did some consulting, including work with WOW. Then the Cafe Options job came up, he says, and "I couldn't turn it down."
As chef, he knows it's his job to set the tone, but the WOW trainees work as hard as anyone. "They come in with a great attitude every day," Dixon says. "People are glad to be here."
"It's so hard for so many of them, and they still show up," Keast says of the trainees, who are often juggling complicated family schedules. "The first day of school was like the day after New Year's at a regular restaurant."
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But Cafe Options is becoming more like a regular restaurant every day. Keast, who joined the staff in July after working as catering manager at La Fondue and Gallagher's, has been expanding Cafe Options' catering business, booking the room for special events and promoting boxed lunches for businesses in the neighborhood. Clients appreciate the low prices and the high quality of the food, she notes, and also "like the cause component behind it." Still, while Cafe Options has literature available that describes WOW's mission, there's nothing about the room — or the food — that suggests this is anything other than a viable option for anyone looking for a fast, inexpensive meal downtown, or maybe just a better cup of coffee than they'd find at that Starbucks on the corner.
Nothing, that is, except the absence of the ubiquitous tip jar; WOW decided to skip that.
But you shouldn't skip Cafe Options. Here's a tip: This could be the best deal in town, both for doing good and eating well.