Frank Van Overbeeke used to prepare foie gras and filet mignon for the French brasserie crowd as executive chef at Bouchee on Newbury Street. Now he makes cheeseburger meatloaf for the residents at the Pine Street Inn.
In the shelter’s kitchen, he also oversees the preparation of jerk chicken with pineapple rice pilaf for the Boston Foundation, chicken tikka masala for Simmons College, and baked ziti for doctors at Boston Medical Center.
Van Overbeeke’s move two years ago from haute cuisine to homeless shelter was a key step in Pine Street Inn’s efforts to develop a corporate catering business to increase revenues to support its food service job-training program. Administrators at the South End facility concede that a homeless shelter is not the most appetizing brand, so they’ve dubbed their culinary enterprises iCater.
“If we can get our foot in the door,’’ said Lyndia Downie, president, “people are surprised that the food is as good as it is and the people are as professional as they are.’’
Businesses such as iCater are popping up more and more as nonprofits look for new ways to help pay for their programs, said Alnoor Ebrahim, a professor at Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative. DC Central Kitchen, a Washington meal service and job training program for the poor, also runs a catering business. Catholic Charities in New Orleans operates a restaurant.
‘People are surprised that the food is as good as it is and the people are as professional as they are.’Lyndia Downie Pine Street Inn president
The trend, in part, is the result of an economic downturn that hurt fund-raising, but increased demand for services, said Ebrahim.
For Pine Street, which also runs a social enterprise business that provides home repair and maintenance services to homeowners and nonprofits to support a handyman training program, the challenge is keeping the focus on providing social services, Ebrahim said.
“It creates a more difficult job,’’ he said, “because the board has to be able to keep the mission first and foremost and also balance the nonprofit work with the for-profit work.’’
The real test, he added, is: “Will their trainees get jobs that will help them climb out of poverty?’’
The year-old corporate catering enterprise builds on Pine Street’s institutional food service operation, which provides meals to detox centers, halfway houses, and other nonprofits. Together, the culinary enterprises bring in about $1 million a year to provide job training for people in Pine Street Inn’s transitional programs and housing units, or those referred by other social service agencies. Pine Street is hoping to double the catering business and expand the size of its training program, which serves about 100 people a year.
The 24-week program instructs trainees in everything from sanitation to interview skills to household budgeting, and pays them minimum wage to prepare meals for shelter residents and catering clients.
“It’s entry-level training,’’ said Van Overbeeke, 46. “We’re not training them to do wedding cakes. But we can definitely train them to make sandwiches.’’
Doctors and scientists at Boston Medical Center eat meals from iCater several times a month. The Mexican fiesta salad with black beans, corn, and avocados ordered for one meeting was such a hit that people went back for seconds and thirds, said office manager Maria LoSurdo. Those who showed up late missed out.
Van Overbeeke, who also oversees the shelter’s kitchen and runs the food service training program, did a three-year culinary apprenticeship in Toronto and was the chef at local establishments such as the Italian restaurant Pomodoro and Matt Murphy’s Pub. He later was the chef at the Hawk Inn and Mountain Resort in Vermont and Bouchee.
Van Overbeeke admits at first he was reluctant to give up the culinary creativity he had in the fine dining world. But he was intrigued by the challenges of finding a way each day to prepare more than 1,000 nutritious, tasty dishes for about $1 a meal, often with donated food that has to be used immediately.
“If you can actually make someone satisfied who otherwise would have gone hungry, that’s really tremendous,’’ he said.
Donated food is not used in the industrial and corporate catering business, which also prepares about 1,000 meals a day.
The training program includes demonstrations by chefs from Legal Sea Foods, Ninety Nine Restaurants, and the food service company Sodexo. It’s often easier for shelter residents with criminal records to get hired by food service organizations, Van Overbeeke pointed out, because the industry generally doesn’t do background checks. About three-quarters of program graduates get jobs or continue culinary training at schools such as Bunker Hill Community College, Pine Street officials said.
Tom Dunscombe, 49, who struggled with alcohol and is living in a halfway house in the South End, is a few weeks away from finishing Pine Street’s training program. He has started looking for restaurant jobs and is grateful for the experience he is getting at the shelter, as well as the money he has been making there.
“If I didn’t have the opportunity to get training while getting paid, I don’t know where I’d be,’’ said Dunscombe, who serves breakfast at the shelter. “I could be on the other side very easily.’’