When Vann Ellison came to Naples’ St. Matthew’s House Homeless Shelter and addiction treatment center as CEO more than 17 years ago, he had a notion for sustainable social services run as businesses that would train clients for brighter futures as well as raise operational funds.
He figured culinary skills would be an ideal fit with the community’s dining-out scene, and told the shelter board about that at his job interview.
The vision’s first step was realized with the launch of a chef-led kitchen that started a catering service, Delicious by Design, while providing meals for shelter residents.
Now that momentum reaches the next level with a facility known as LuLu’s Kitchen on Airport-Pulling Road near a St. Matthew’s thrift shop and main residential shelter. LuLu’s multi-tasks as a 8,000 square foot public café, Fresh Start, serving breakfast and lunch (there is even a drive-thru window); a culinary school training chefs, baristas and servers; a producer of meals for the shelter; and a venue for special events such as non-profits’ gatherings and business receptions in the evening.
Led by a St. Matthew’s alumnus, Executive Chef Sean Dietzel, who was working at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, LuLu’s opened in October, thanks to the philanthropy of a Naples couple, Bruce and Jeri Holocek. They first supported St. Matthew’s Justin’s Place rehabilitation center to memorialize their son who died of alcoholism at age 30. Later The Holocek’s gifts included the acquisition of the Port LaBelle Inn as an outreach for overall hands-on hospitality industry training, including Sprout Catering.
LuLu is Jeri Holocek’s nickname, and yes, those namesake Naples restaurants are hers.
“This is a great treasure” is a common response by patrons such as nearby County Government Center employees learning LuLu’s is open to all, Ellison says. The Community Foundation of Collier County agrees, adding a $55,000 grant in February.
Other components of St. Matthew’s social enterprise network includes a car wash and vehicle detailing business (“There are a lot of nice cars out there”) that prepares clients for a good-paying trade with minimal investment. LaBelle also hosts hands-dirty training in organic farming.
At LuLu’s, where 70 percent of the space is dedicated to training, students learn food services from the ground up, starting with dishwashing and preparing meats, fish and vegetables, with an emphasis on food safety, which can lead to an official certificate from the state. At LaBelle the kitchen touches on teaching single mothers how to feed their children as well as get jobs. At both locations, Ellison says, students can expect to graduate to good jobs at local restaurants, hotels and country clubs, especially these days when some veteran cooks and servers have left for other work amid the pandemic.
Graduates get plenty of follow-up on employment success as well as dependency setbacks – and money management. “It’s a lot like parenting,” Ellison explains. “Half of them have never had a bank account.”
The overarching mission, he says, is helping clients achieve fulfilling, joyful lives.
The journey of a key LuLu’s staff member, Victor Rodriguez, symbolizes what it’s all about. He came to St. Matthew’s to escape gang violence and addiction in Miami. He credits St. Matthew’s and LuLu’s for saving his life and providing direction to support his new wife and daughter.
He explains his relatives had written him off – and now they are proud. Staying connected to LuLu’s, with friends he can trust, makes him feel humble and grounded.
“LuLu’s means a great deal to me,” he says. “It gives me an opportunity to give back to the community. This program helped me get my life back.”
Victor Voorhis is equally grateful. The culinary student is continuing his training at Lorenzo Walker Vocational Technical Center, with financial help from St. Matthew’s, to sharpen his kitchen skills and earning power.
“They’re all really good people,” he says of the St. Matthew’s counselors and LuLu’s crew. “Everyone helps you as much as possible.” And, he says, they will monitor his progress. “I know St. Matthew’s will be there for me all the way.”
Voorhis, who returned to St. Matthew’s after a relapse, adds: “They’ve helped me realize my full potential and see that I am not just a useless person. When I put my mind to it I can succeed.
“I may have a drinking problem and I am an alcoholic, but I do not have to let that define who I am. LuLu’s showed me that a workplace can be safe and fun. It is an experience like no other.”
St. Matthew’s board chairman, Joe Trachtenberg, sums up his invitation for a tour. “I think,” he says, “you’ll be very impressed.”