Troop Cafe offers hearty meals, restaurant training for Milwaukee vets
By MEG JONES | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT) | Published: January 5, 2014
If the restaurant's name isn't a tip-off, the sandwiches on the menu certainly reveal that this dining establishment is unusual: B-52 Meatball Bomber, Cuban Pickle Crisis, Buffalo Soldier Chicken Wrap.
Dished up by workers who served their country in uniform, the good food at Troop Cafe belies the nature of the unique restaurant that does double duty as a training program for veterans seeking jobs in the food and hospitality industries.
The café on the ground floor of Veterans Manor at the busy intersection of N. 35th St. and W. Wisconsin Ave. serves breakfast and lunch, as well as hot and cold drinks. Since the nonprofit restaurant opened several months ago, two trainees have found jobs at local restaurants and several more culinary trainees are enrolled in the six- to nine-month program.
Most of the food is made from scratch — salads, sandwiches, soups, cinnamon rolls, scones and cookies — at the direction of chef Greg Bautista. He develops menu items, trains employees and oversees the restaurant. Bautista was initially asked to consult on the menu and ended up joining the venture full time.
"It's very rewarding. I love coming to work and making a difference," said Bautista, who was food operations manager for the Milwaukee Center for Independence. "I love bonding with the veterans and seeing them progress through the program."
Employees in tan military-style caps, khaki slacks and brown "Troop Cafe" aprons serve five different kinds of hot dogs, soup, Fox Hole Chili and sandwiches with names such as Deep Diver Tuna Wrap, Beach Landing Melt — applewood-smoked turkey and ham, bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce, onion and cherry tomatoes on ciabatta bread — and a traditional Cuban sandwich named Cuban Pickle Crisis. All sandwiches are $6.99, and for $2.45 extra customers get soda, a cookie and a side dish of coleslaw, baked beans, mashed potatoes and gravy or potato chips.
Signs on the wall proclaim: "Your Meal, Our Mission" and "Feed Your Hunger, Fuel the Mission." Breakfast items include English muffin and biscuit sandwiches and breakfast platters like the John Wayne Western Omelet.
Troop Cafe is open from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. It's also branching out into catering box lunches for local businesses. Customers come from the neighborhood, area businesses, Marquette High School and folks waiting at the intersection's bus stops. Some linger to flip open laptops and use the free Wi-Fi and drink coffee.
When Veterans Manor, a 52-unit apartment building for low-income veterans, was in the planning stages, Father Warren Sazama at Marquette University High School across the street suggested incorporating a restaurant into the new facility, said Bob Cocroft, president and CEO of the Center for Veterans Issues. The group provides services ranging from housing to employment programs.
Cocroft, a retired brigadier general, said Sazama told him that "one of the things that would be an asset to the neighborhood was a delicatessen or restaurant, to add a food station in what's perceived to be a food desert."
"Since we're in the business of training veterans and finding them employment, we decided, 'Let's create a full-scale kitchen where individuals could get training,'" Cocroft said.
Veterans Manor cost a little over $12 million to build, while the cost to open Troop Cafe came entirely through private philanthropic sources, including a $250,000 donation from Harley-Davidson Inc., Cocroft said.
"It's not quite a break-even enterprise, but we're working toward that. We can always use more customers," said Cocroft. "I think we can get to that point. We're still in our first year of operation."
Trainees have served in every branch of the military. Most are in their mid-30s to 50s, though one trainee was a Vietnam veteran in his 70s. So far, no Iraq or Afghanistan veterans have gone through the program.
Under Bautista's tutelage, trainees learn customer service, food handling and safety, the vagaries of timing and temperature in the kitchen, rotation of food stock, sanitation and knife safety. They start out slowly by doing salad prep work and making cold sandwiches, advancing to hot food and learning how to make soups and sauces.
Among the four current trainees is Rick Kruchten, who spent 10 years in the Navy as a cook. He saw an email about Troop Cafe and submitted an application. With his experience, Kruchten has become a lead person and mentor to the other trainees.
"We have a responsibility not just to what we're doing on a daily basis, but to the program," said Kruchten, who hopes to work in food service at an assisted-living center for seniors. "I love being here, and I hope everybody who walks through the door feels the same pride in the program."
Jon Skeens, a Milwaukee native who served in the Marines from 2006 to 2010, had just left a seasonal job at Yankee Candle when he learned of the program. He loves to cook and hopes the skills he's learning will help him find a full-time job in the organic food industry. His dream job? Working for Outpost Natural Foods.
"It's great. In a way, it's like being back in the service, though we're not walking around with weapons," said Skeens, a vegetarian who Bautista hopes will create a vegetarian sandwich for Troop Cafe's menu.