When Veevi Deng first stepped foot inside Old Skool Cafe in 2022, she was stunned. That’s because it wasn’t technically her first experience with the nonprofit supper club. Deng grew up in Visitacion Valley — five minutes from the Bayview, where the restaurant is located — and was expelled from high school in 2008. She was one of the first young people to work with Old Skool founder Teresa Goines and enrolled in the nascent food and life skills nonprofit years before the physical restaurant opened in 2012.
At its core, Old Skool Cafe is about violence prevention and job training for youth ages 16 to 22. So when Deng returned, she was shocked to see the restaurant’s physical space, just a dream when she worked with Goines in the early days. “It’s all red,” Deng says. “And the servers are the same people who created the recipes.”
Organizations including Urban Alchemy and the historic Huckleberry House have worked to provide better opportunities for marginalized communities in San Francisco for decades. There are just a handful, though, providing access to the food industry for historically underserved communities like the Bayview. A decade in, the supper club continues to provide an essential outlet for troubled teens. “From the outside, people think the Bayview is ridden with crime,” Deng says. “But people in the area are so friendly, and our youths’ families in the program find hope at Old Skool.”
Old Skool Cafe founder Teresa Goines worked for many years as a corrections officer and always felt there should be a more creative path for youth. To that end, Old Skool offers four months of on-site training in the service industry through which participants learn everything from julienning onions to running orders. After, graduates can apply for paid positions at the restaurant. Though there are plenty of businesses Goines could have opened, she says she opted for a restaurant as there’s generally a low barrier to entry even for second-chance workers.
The supper club is designed to evoke the 1920s, a Harlem Renaissance vibe. Workers wear red and black fedoras, bowties, and suspenders. Youth moonlight as performers at the supper club, too. Goines says she sees herself as mere support staff, but Deng says she felt Goines played a bigger role than that. Working with Goines and Old Skool she learned — and later taught — swing dancing, brought groceries to elderly people, and raised plants in gardens throughout the city. “We had a lot of trauma,” Deng says. “But Teresa always helped us out.”
The restaurant is also a doorway into the professional dining world for program participants. A program graduate who now works at the restaurant whipped up a West African peanut butter stew for the menu that was “life-changing,” Deng says. But chief of staff Lisa Litsey says it’s not just the food that makes the program work; it’s the entire experience. She says it’s a bad night if customers drop by just to support the program. Guests’ first thoughts should be about the crispy fried chicken, the slick atmosphere, and the top-tier service. “You’re transported to a different era,” Litsey says. “And then you say ‘oh and it was run by youth.’”
Growing up in New York, Eddie Blyden went to school at City College just down the street from where his grandma was born in Harlem. He’s familiar with that neighborhood’s famous jazz scene, so when he decided to volunteer with Old Skool in 2005, he knew recognized something special going on in the Bayview. “It truly is a magical space,” Blyden says. “When people walk in, they’re just wowed.”
Now he’s the restaurant’s head chef, coming onboard in July 2022. He says whether it be for a 98-year-old’s birthday or a group of Irish dancers, Old Skool and its youth provide the same stellar food and service. For Black History Month 2023, the restaurant hosted a series of meals in honor of local Black celebrities including Bayview activist Dorris Vincent, Judge Trina Thompson, actor Delroy Lindo, and Mayor London Breed. Custom dishes were whipped up for each guest, by youth ideating alongside Blyden.
The restaurant’s commitment to San Francisco’s Black citizens isn’t lost on a neighborhood as community-centric as the Bayview, which has been historically troubled by systemic racism. In “Counterpoints: A Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance,” Bayview community activist Raymond Tompkins found Bayview residents died 14 years earlier than residents in Russian Hill, which has a lower percentage of Black residents than the Bayview. Tompkins blames that gap on the pollution in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point area. It’s because of this complex history that residents on San Francisco’s east side rely on organizations like Old Skool to provide their kids can get a chance at something better.
Litsey says when she thinks about the challenges facing San Francisco and the country and is glad Old Skool is continuing what Goines set out to do. The program prioritizes young people from the Bayview and Hunter’s Point areas for participation. But she and Blyden would both love to open more Old Skools throughout San Francisco and the country. That might just happen, too. One current apprentice has family in both the Fillmore and Bayview, and she’d like to open an “international soul food restaurant” someday.
For Deng, life did continue along a much brighter arc after working at Old Skool. She discovered a love of food and ran a blog with her friends for a while. Cuisine and culture have become some of the most important things in her life, and she returned to Old Skool in 2022 as a graphic designer. “I am where I am because of Old Skool,” Deng says.
Old Skool Cafe (1429 Mendell Street, San Francisco) is open Thursday through Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. with live jazz from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Reservations are available online.