Denver restaurant provides training ground for refugees, immigrants | Lifestyle

DENVER As black and white images of Frida Kahlo and Malala Yousafzai gaze out from a mural inside Comal Heritage Food Incubator, lunch seekers queue up.

They’ve come for the chips and guacamole, churros with mango and strawberry jam, calabacitas, rice and beans, Venezuelan burritos, birria, puerco en salsa verde and pork tamales, all made from fresh ingredients. Mexican, Syrian, Ethiopian, Venezuelan, Salvadoran — the menu changes regularly, reflecting the heritage of whomever is in the kitchen.

But patrons are doing more than filling their bellies, whether they know it or not. By shelling out a few bucks for lunch, they’re helping Focus Points Family Resource Center operate Comal as a training program for refugees and immigrants who hope to open their own businesses or find jobs in the food industry.

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“It’s a rigorous program,” said Jules Kelty, executive director for Focus Points, a nonprofit that serves low-income families in the greater northeast Denver area. “It’s not easy to launch your own business. The restaurant industry isn’t easy. The women in here are very serious about this work.”

On a hot Wednesday morning in October, Comal is jumping, with people scattered inside and out, waiting at long picnic tables for their food. Thanks to a mention in The New York Times’ best restaurant list of 2021, the lunch-only hotspot in the Five Points neighborhood set a record the previous day, doing three times its regular sales.

“On a recent visit to Comal, long-cooked pork shoulder with a redolent salsa roja came with tortillas on the perfectly near side of pillowy,” wrote Brian Gallagher in the Times.

Kelty appreciates the recognition.

“The real win is raising awareness for this program and also the benefit to the community,” she said. “A lot of the money that comes through here goes directly back to community members, so we’re contributing to building community wealth as we’re doing this program.”

There’s also an unspoken ingredient responsible for Comal’s sublime cuisine: love.

“There’s something to that — the intentionality,” Kelty said. “It’s such a beautiful exchange of culture and energy and support. To come into the program, you have to love what you cook. You have to love your country and want to showcase what you and your family and country enjoy.”

The application-only, 18-24 monthslong training is open to immigrants and refugee women who are aspiring entrepreneurs with a passion to share their heritage cuisine.

Those who are accepted into the program work at Comal, learning on the job skills and how a commercial kitchen works, while also testing and refining their heritage recipes and developing business skills.

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Comal, named after the flat griddle often used to cook tortillas and other foods, and found in many family kitchens in Mexico, Central America and parts of South America, opened in 2016. In the last five years, program participants have launched four businesses. Fourteen women have received catering licenses and seven to nine women have been placed in high-end restaurants positions, including chef. Altogether, 35 people have gone through the program.

Of the five current female participants, one is from Venezuela and four are from different regions of Mexico.

Maria L. Sanchez from Valparaíso in Zacatecas, Mexico, arrived in the U.S. 36 years ago, and started the Focus Points program at Comal three years ago. It’s taking her longer to finish due to health issues.

“If I had started a similar business program earlier in life, I would have my own business,” she said through a translator.

Venezuelan Olivia Marcano, who came to the U.S. almost three years ago, has found a family at Comal.

“I’m in love with the program,” Marcano said through a translator. “I started my culinary education in Venezuela. I learn something new every day. I went to a Focus Points job fair with food by Comal. A participant there shared their passion for Comal, and now I share that passion.”

Focus Points, about a mile east of Comal, was founded more than 25 years ago, and is based on four pillars: workforce development, family support services, adult education and social enterprise.

“Our mission is to build our communities by strengthening families,” Kelty said. “Comal really brings those pillars together.”

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Through its programs, the nonprofit hopes to foster personal and family sustainability and promote financial stability. It has tailored the restaurant training around its participants, who are often single moms who want education but might still have children at home. An earn-while-you-learn model provides a stipend as they go through training, and limiting the restaurant to lunch hours allows single mothers to get their kids back and forth to school.

“Our education system is one of privilege, where you have to forgo wages to acquire new skills,” Kelty said. “You’ll receive a small stipend for that participation to help your family. Maybe it can offset the costs of child care or some bills, things that could otherwise be barriers to accepting the program.”

Though it’s the women who are doing the hard work in the program, Kelty knows their children are positively affected by watching their parent pursue their dreams. One of the best indicators of a child’s long-term success is seeing a parent finish any type of training or education program, she said, particularly a mother.

“You learn the habits of school, you learn the perseverance it takes,” Kelty said. “When I see the women at Comal, it’s not just them and their dreams. I’m thinking toward their children’s aspirations and how much more likely their children are to be successful in the future because they got to watch mom and be part of mom’s growth.”

Contact the writer: 636-0270

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