Homeless run cafeteria at Civic Center - Orange County, CA FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 19 Jun 1999 23:24:35 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  [California, USA] Orange County Register - Sun, 16 May 1999


     Running the Civic Center cafeteria gives them
     the ingredients for a life turnaround.

     The Orange County Register

[photo] JEBB HARRIS - The Orange County Register
John Wilburn takes an order at the Veterans Charities of Orange County
Cafeteria at the Civic Center. He says the veterans agency saved his life.

[photo] JEBB HARRIS - The Register
The lunch menu was a little limited at the veterans' cafeteria Friday. John
Wilburn, foreground, and John Fogarty work.

John Wilburn beams at the woman across the counter as he slides a burger
and fries to her.

   "If there's anything else you want ma'm, c'mon back and I'll give it to
you," says the 60-year-old fry cook.

   This isn't quite, Wilburn later admits, the level of service he provided
when he was a sailor working a Navy galley.

   But he's no longer 17 and fresh out of Texas. And he no longer has a
captive dining audience.

   His diners today are civilians, county employees for the most part,
checking out the new Veterans Charities of Orange County Cafeteria in the
Civic Center in Santa Ana.

   It's a mouthful.

   But the cafeteria's staff, all military veterans who have been homeless,
have high hopes.

   They aim to move past their troubles, polish old skills, learn new ones,
teach the trade to other vets, and make some money for themselves and the
charity that is housing them.

   "I was not all the way down, but I was darn close," explains Wilburn. "I
haven't had steady work for three or four years. Didn't have no place to
stay. The cafeteria is our chance to give back to Miss Deanne."

   That's Deanne Tate, executive director of Veterans Charities, who heard
about the closed cafeteria at the Civic Center.

   She decided it would be ideal for the homeless vets in Veterans
Charities shelters, and its counseling and rehab programs.

   Those with experience could brush up their skills before hitting bigger
culinary markets. Those who needed work experience could get some. They
would all get paid, and the charity would benefit from any profits.

   Until the county bankruptcy, the space was operated by the Department of
Rehabilitation and run mostly by blind and legally blind people. It closed
when county spending was slashed.

   It reopened, quietly, on Monday. The vets will have a grand opening May
24, after they've had time to work out any kinks.

   Inside, the third-floor space has the usual ambiance of an institutional
dining center. Outside, it has the strong plus of a landscaped patio and
nice views of downtown Santa Ana.

   In military speak, it is a cross between a "gedunk" and a chow palace.
That is, a snack bar and a mess hall.

   But comparisons with military fare stops with the vets.

   The breakfast eggs are fresh, not powdered. There are no mystery dishes
ladeled from a bottomless pot, and nothing resembling that standard,
creamed chipped beef on toast.

   And there is no reason to badmouth the cooks.

   At one lunch this week, the vets greeted a dozen or more customers by
name. "Please," "thank you," "sir" and "ma'am" were heard as often as
"burger" —  the one dish on the lunch menu.

   And the woman who mistakenly ordered lunch from the breakfast menu
wasn't to be disappointed just because the breakfast foods were gone.

   "Hold on now," said assistant manager Thaddeus Wade, a Navy cook in
Vietnam. "We aim to please. If the lady wants a burrito, she gets a

   The lady then changed her mind and ordered a burger with fries.

   Breakfast is any combination of eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, toast,
pancakes and French toast. For this week, burgers are it at lunch. A
cheeseburger and fries is $3.25.

   Next week, sandwiches and a serve-yourself salad bar will be added, and
the refrigerator will hold more than milk.

   The credit card machine should be on line soon, along with an ATM and,
in time, a system so people may place orders by fax.

   In time, Wilburn and Wade wouldn't mind introducing Orange County to a
few of their Southern favorites.

   Wilburn makes French fries from sweet potatoes. And Wade, a New Orleans
native with culinary schooling, is ready to work his way down the list:
jambalaya, gumbo, Creole shrimp.

   "In the service, you don't get to cook the way you want to. Everything's
bland," says Wade. "I wouldn't make anything too spicy. A lot of folks
don't like that. But I'm good. They'd like what I make."

  The veterans' cafeteria is at 10 Civic Center Plaza, Building 12, third
floor, Santa Ana. It is open  7 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays.

**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**

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