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Ruthie’s Rolling Cafe and Cafe Momentum Form a Youth-Centered Partnership

Grilled cheese sandwiches with a lot of heart.
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Ruthie’s Rolling Cafe food trucks have changed their name to reflect a partnership with Cafe Momentum, the non-profit that works with at-risk youth. The food trucks, now emblazoned with the new moniker, Ruthie’s Fueled by Cafe Momentum, will function as a landing place for youth who have completed the downtown program and want to pursue a paid fellowship.

“We’re thrilled, we’re just so excited,” says Ruthie’s founder Ashlee Kleinert.

The genesis of the partnership comes from another program, Ruthie’s Snacks of Kindness, in which Ruthie’s team delivers to a different non-profit organization every month—part of Kleinert’s big-heartedness. One of those organizations last year was Cafe Momentum. The seed was planted.

“I’d been wanting more purpose and more intention with the truck,” Kleinert says. “And I don’t want to become a non-profit. Do you have any use for a food truck?” she asked Cafe Momentum director Chad Houser. His reply, according to her: “You’re not gonna believe this, this is perfect.” And so it began.

The reason Ruthie’s is a good fit, according to Kleinert, is simple: “The [Cafe Momentum] program is intended to be a 12-month program. And they’ll have some kids who are just ready to go right into the Omni or the Joule.” But not all the graduates of the culinary training program are ready for such an environment, which, with its large scale and potential isolation and strain is different from the Cafe Momentum orbit, with its social services and rituals of family meal. Kleinert says she and Houser discussed the way “a big environment can be a trigger and add stress or undo all the hard work they’ve done.”

Enter the food-truck-scale environment. “We always say we’re like a family,” Kleinert adds. And, she says, “they’re still stretching and growing and learning new things, but it’s in the safety of a small business that now formally partners with Cafe Momentum. We work with their case workers now. Everyone on the trucks has been trauma-informed. We’re still providing the best quality experience for them.”

So far, one Cafe Momentum graduate has joined the Ruthie’s team (which consists of two trucks and a staff of 18), with two more set to join soon. A buddy system on the truck facilitates training, and Kleinert says she and Houser are working on securing partnership with a ride-sharing company that might be able to ease potential transportation barriers. “We’re hoping to get this partnership with another business to see if they would cover the driver part of driver’s education, and then provide driver service until [the graduate] get[s] a license. And there is another one that would love to provide vehicles.”

“We’re going slow, when there are openings,” Kleinert says. “So we’re not replacing anyone on our team. They’re growing as well. They’re getting to teach life on a food truck.”

Meanwhile, the cross-pollination between Cafe Momentum and Ruthie’s will mean novelty on the practical and creative sides. “This partnership is so good. We’re benefitting in so many ways,” Kleinert says. “The chefs use fresh produce from Bonton Farm or Paul Quinn, so we’ll start being able to use those honeys and jams on the sandwiches” and feature sandwich specials with fresh produce as well. She laughs: “Chad thinks he can improve our barbecue. That’s our number-one seller,” she says. To be determined.

“It’s so heartwarming, because we have different organizations wanting to take a different piece of it,” Kleinert says. For her, it’s a civic issue. “If we don’t have employment opportunities for people, it’s a civic problem. It affects our city and it affects what companies will move here. We have people who have worked so hard, and who have done all the hard work, and they really want to be productive citizens, but if they can’t find employment, they just give up hope and get pulled down. They can be your best employees,” she continues. “Because they know what it is to not have a job.”

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