Café Overlook Set to be Training Ground for Future Hospitality Workers, Business Incubator

With Café Overlook, a service industry nonprofit seeks to turn pie-in-the-sky ideas into real-world solutions.

Joy Frank-Collins
From left, Letha Pugh, Sangeeta Lakhani and Matthew Heaggans at the Franklin County Courthouse

About 20 years ago, Matthew Heaggans would occasionally meet his sister at the Franklin County Courthouse complex, where she worked as an administrative assistant, for lunch in the Ben Franklin Cafeteria on the 16th floor of the Downtown building. This March, the chef and co-owner of Preston’s: A Burger Joint will start frequenting the spot once again—this time as one member of a team of bona fide rock stars on the Columbus food scene who aim to re-envision what a courthouse cafeteria can be.

Café Overlook is expected to open its doors in late March, offering breakfast and lunch to the people employed at the courthouse as well as those who work at or visit the sprawling Franklin County Government Center at 369-375 S. High St.

Serving as the next iteration of the nonprofit Service! Relief for Hospitality Workers, co-founded by Heaggans, chef Sangeeta Lakhani (formerly of The Table) and Letha Pugh, co-founder of Bake Me Happy gluten-free bakery, the cafeteria will function as a training ground for future hospitality industry employees and a business incubator, thanks to a unique public/private partnership with Franklin County.

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Service! was started by the trio in reaction to the March 2020 restaurant shutdown, when hospitality workers suddenly lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic. The organization started that spring by feeding workers in need, dishing out some 10,000 meals in two months. As the hunger crisis subsided, Service! shifted to offering cash grants to restaurant employees, serving as “good stewards” of the nearly $100,000 the organization received in donations in a month’s time, Pugh says.

And while the COVID-19 crisis served as the flash point for founding Service!, once they saw the impact it was having on the community, their community, Heaggans, Lakhani and Pugh began talking about what they would do once the COVID crisis was behind us.

“It was really important to work from the bottom up. That was something we all started talking about when we started Service!—why this grassroots movement was important­—and it was about providing a voice, but also providing services, training and all of the things that are lacking in this industry,” Lakhani says.

They envisioned a center where they could train people interested in working in the restaurant industry—teaching them everything from dishwashing to running the grill to serving. Service! would then pair them up with restaurants in need of well-trained employees. “And then [this] was literally dropped right in our laps,” Pugh says.

The cafeteria in the county courthouse complex, like all Franklin County eateries, shuttered at the beginning of COVID. So, when the time came to consider reopening, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners challenged deputy county administrator Kris Long and others to think creatively about what could be done with the 16th-floor space.

A few county officials put their heads together. They knew there were agencies supporting a variety of people looking for jobs—from children about to age out of the foster care system to formerly incarcerated individuals re-entering the community to people looking for a new start through Job and Family Services. They also knew they had a cafeteria that needed reopening, as well as multiple buildings full of employees who were either brown-bagging it or buying lunch out of vending machines. What they didn’t have was experience running a restaurant.

Noting the efficiency with which Service! was formed, its founders’ pedigrees and its mission to support restaurant industry workers, Long reached out to Lakhani. “It seemed like a really wonderful opportunity to see if there was any way that we could, as a county, partner with this nonprofit, to just take a whole different approach to that cafeteria process,” Long says.

When Lakhani brought the idea of running the cafeteria back to Pugh and Heaggans, “we were kind of suspect,” Pugh says, laughing. They began a back and forth with the county, listing out every “pie-in-the-sky” accommodation employees in their industry might need to be successful. Instead of offering up excuses, the county agreed.

And Café Overlook was born.

While some details are still shaking out, the overall operations plan works like this: The Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services will select about 30 applicants from their group of candidates and refer them to Jewish Family Services to vet them, train them for interviews, and ensure they have ServSafe certifications and basic uniform items like nonslip shoes and hair coverings to work in a kitchen. The Service! staff will interview and hire 18 to 20 of those people, who will be trained to work in all areas of a restaurant, front and back of house, as well as making specialty coffee drinks. Students from the Columbus Downtown High School Culinary Arts Program will also be brought in to work at the cafeteria.

Employees will be paid $15 an hour, have health insurance, a transportation and/or child care subsidy if needed, access to mental health and addiction services and access to all of the benefits county employees are offered. (They will, however, be Service! employees.)

“Really, we are working to provide whatever they need to get a leg up in life and have someone support them just enough so they can take that next step,” Lakhani says.

Service! co-founder Sangeeta Lakhani helps prepare free meals for restaurant workers in 2020.

The Service! team hopes to build a pipeline of local restaurants waiting to hire Café Overlook staffers at the same rate of pay or higher. “We want to make sure that these highly trained employees now have a place to go,” Lakhani says.

Heaggans’ main focus right now is setting the menu, which he describes as “a little more elevated” than what was formerly offered but still accessible in terms of both price and palate. There will be a lot of scratch-made items and a variety of vegetarian options as well as “a little bit more international influence here and there,” he says. Bake Me Happy will provide plenty of tasty snack items. There will be a salad bar and, of course, a grill. “The grill itself will be powered by Preston’s,” Heaggans says. “There will be a smashburger, but not a Preston’s burger.”

The goal, after all, isn’t to replicate any one chef’s successful venture, but to incorporate techniques they’ve used that they can pass along to their protégés.

Once Café Overlook is open, they plan to add a business incubator that will offer budding entrepreneurs mentorship. That opportunity, says Franklin County Board of Commissioners president Erica Crawley, is especially attractive to younger members of the workforce. “There is this conversation about not having a workforce and how people really don’t want to work, especially our young folks, and that’s absolutely not true. They do want to work. They want to be entrepreneurs, they want to do something they love and that they flourish in and be flexible and have more of a work-life balance,” she says.

In January, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners allocated an initial $250,000 to fund startup costs for Café Overlook. Because this is such a new venture, total costs are still a challenge to pin down. For the foreseeable future, Long expects there will be a “piecemeal process” in place for funding the café to ensure they’re hitting the “sweet spot” by providing an exciting, affordable food experience for patrons as well as a living wage and appropriate benefits to employees.

While fiscal responsibility is vital, Crawley agrees, so is investing in the citizens of Franklin County. “[Heaggans, Lakhani and Pugh] are rock stars in our community; people love them. And they love this community; they want to see people thrive, and they’re just as excited about it as we are,” Crawley says. “And so, I think the knowledge and skills these folks will gain from these rock stars—that alone is invaluable. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

This story is from the February 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.