Thick, freshly fried tortilla chips scoop tangy green-chile salsa swimming with avocado. Handmade steamed tortillas sop up rich chicken mole and peppery carne asada. Hibiscus tea, sweet and tart, chases each bite.
This is the food of Comal, a lunch restaurant and heritage food incubator now open in the TAXI development at 3455 Ringsby Court. Comal's mission goes far beyond providing Denver with home-style Mexican eats; the restaurant is part of a community-outreach project from nonprofit organization Focus Points, aimed at giving residents of the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods the job training they need to move forward with their careers. "Focus Points' mission is to build communities by strengthening families," says executive director Steven Moss, and to that end, the organization supports education initiatives, pre-schools, GED programs and economic development opportunities, with the goal of helping people in Denver's low-income communities find stable jobs with good incomes.
Focus Points is expanding its career development work through a new economic workforce development center; the organization's community-outreach program identified a number of potential opportunities to provide entrepreneurial training — in the construction and child-care businesses, for example. But the group also saw a resounding interest in the hospitality industry, which is why Comal became the first initiative.
"It came out of the community," says Focus Points' director of economic and workforce development, Slavica Park. "This is a group of entrepreneurs with a passion for cooking. Focus Points asked: 'How do we take this to the next level?' In order to move to the next level, these women needed a kitchen."
The organization partnered with Zeppelin Development to secure that kitchen, taking over the old Fuel space. A cohort of community members will spend eight months there learning the nuts and bolts of how to operate a restaurant, with the goal of eventually opening their own restaurants or catering companies, or securing work in higher-end commercial kitchens. "The idea is that they should launch their own small business," says Park. "This is a platform and an incubator."
Focus Points brought on executive chef Tim Bender — whose résumé includes stints as chef de cuisine at Chinook Tavern, sous-chef at Blackbird Public House and sous-chef at Black Pearl — to help the group members take their cooking, which they'd mostly honed in home kitchens, to a professional level. When he introduced his team at a soft opening lunch last week, he noted they didn't need much help on the recipe front; his job was more about helping them learn operations, standardizing their dishes for a restaurant setting and teaching them ingredient sourcing, safe cooking, presentation, timing and other ins and outs of running a restaurant.
Indeed, the menu came from the group itself. "All of these women have been cooks before, and they have their own specialties," says Moss. He adds that several of them have catered for neighborhood organizations like the GrowHaus, too.
Park says the team will develop daily menus as well as a list of grab-and-go options, and they'll be offered individual support that meets their specific needs. "This really caters to each individual group. And after eight months, we'll continue providing them with support, helping them market their businesses and remaining engaged."
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Comal will evolve with each new cohort: the next group will have the chance to design its own menu and reconfigure the concept a bit to meet individual needs. The Focus Points team expects the concept to evolve, too, as the group works out the kinks of the training and programming. It also hopes to work with the GrowHaus to build out a garden at TAXI, with beds for hard-to-find Latin American spices and chiles.
Focus Points also plans to expand the workforce-development initiatives into other industries. "This is just the beginning," says Park. "We're building a training and business center. The whole idea is to launch social enterprises."
And those enterprises, the team hopes, will follow in the public-private partnership model they've put together here. "The reason this project was possible was because of the private-public partnership," says Park. "We're very grateful to the Zeppelins. It's really beautiful to see, and it's really helping the community."
Comal is now open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.