Krackers Katering: Food that’s good for the soul

Members of the Krackers Katering Team

When TJ, 26, first arrived in Ottawa three years ago, he was down on his luck. He’d moved around constantly, experienced homelessness and never held down a formal job.

“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of work,” says TJ. But that all changed when he got connected with Ottawa’s oldest social enterprise, Krakers Katering, which turns 20 this year. While the business provides a diverse menu it’s offerings extend well beyond food service. 

“We have the customers we cater for, and the clients we serve,” explains Don Palmer, Executive Director of Causeway Work Centre, which oversees four social enterprises, including Krackers Katering. Krackers was built on a model Palmer refers to as, ‘step-in, step-up, and step-out.’  The business is designed to employ people living with mental illness and other challenges who require more support and flexibility than a conventional workplace traditionally affords.

The business, which began as a small kitchen where clients gathered and cooked for one another, teaches employees a concrete skill that they can parlay into work in the community. From preparing and cooking meals to working with a team and negotiating the fast pace of a busy kitchen, employees get experience and a confidence boost, while making an income.

TJ embodies this vision.  “I was connected with caring people right away. They treated me like a human, and I was given the support I needed.” TJ has slowly taken on more and more responsibility at Krackers. He’s diversified his skills, from dishwasher to driver’s assistant to manning the cash.  When he talks about Causeway, and his job at Krackers, the sense of pride and accomplishment he feels crackles through the phone.

“The Mental Health Commission of Canada uses Krackers regularly,” says MHCC President and CEO Louise Bradley. “The food is delicious and the service is warm. But we also view this as an important opportunity to acquaint external stakeholders — like members of Parliament, for example — with the vibrant, competent, and positive face of mental illness.”

Palmer agrees that all four social enterprises run by Causeway Work Centre serve a dual purpose. “Not only do our businesses, which range from salvaging and re-homing bicycles to our ‘Good Nature Groundskeeping,’ provide people with employment, they also act as a stigma-buster. 

People get their lawns mowed or eat a great meal, served by our staff, and they come away with a fresh perspective on what mental illness looks like.”

Krista Benes, the MHCC’s Program Manager for Workplace Mental Health, leads the Aspiring Workforce file, which focuses on how to better integrate people living with mental illness into the workplace. “What we’ve seen borne out in our research are the tremendous benefits to both employer and employee when an organization makes a concerted effort to accommodate people living with a mental health problem or illness.”

Palmer concurs. “Over the years, employees come to us and tell us how they’ve been given something more than a job. One young woman put it best. She stood up at a fundraiser dinner and said to a room full of donors, ‘I came here looking for someone to give me a job. Instead, what I got is a new life.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

And it’s this mutual benefit, of being an employer that changes a life, that is at the heart of Causeway Work Centre and many other social enterprises growing and flourishing across the country.

“We have a saying at the MHCC,” says Bradley. “A home, a job, a friend. These are the pillars of good mental health. And often a job begets the other two.”

Back at Krackers, some employees indeed ‘step-out’ as per the goal — like the driver who moved on to one of the city’s pre-eminent catering organizations and the client who went back to school and opened an at-home bakery. Still others, often those people living with the most serious mental illnesses, enjoy the safety and security Krackers affords them.

As for TJ, Krackers has given him the permission to dream big. “I’ve got an entrepreneurial spirit, and one day I want to be the manager of the managers – the big cheese.”

Palmer acknowledges that success isn’t the same for everyone, “We’re just happy to be a part of that journey.”