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Nick May at Hawthorne

An appetite for change

Nick May has moved between on-the-floor retail and head-office marketing. He’s worked restaurants in Toronto and New York City, in positions ranging from server to manager. “In retail and hospitality,” he says, “people don’t stay in the same location for long. They’re always looking for something new and exciting. They need that change.”

For him, that change arrived when he became General Manager at Hawthorne Food & Drink, a social enterprise operated in partnership with the Hospitality Workers Training Centre (HWTC). “There seemed to be a deeper purpose, a higher calling,” he says.

Indeed, there was. In 2012, Hawthorne won funding through the Toronto Enterprise Fund business-plan competition, a partnership between United Way and all three levels of government. Today, Hawthorne offers hands-on training to people who are receiving social assistance, living in the shelter system or facing other employment barriers, and who are seeking jobs within the industry.

“Like any employer, we take on people we believe can and will be successful,” explains Nick. “Rather than previous experience, however, we’re looking for core competencies: the willingness to learn and give 100%. People who are willing to smile—especially in the face of adversity, when it’s toughest to do.”

The proof is in the pudding.

After suffering a stroke, one trainee (with prior kitchen experience) had lost some dexterity and had difficulty communicating. Beginning with small jobs, though, he became more and more proficient, and was eventually hired by another restaurant, at a high level. “He was an individual who, sadly, wouldn’t always get the opportunity in a regular restaurant setting,” says Nick. “We just had to figure out the best way of communicating. And now he’s doing so well.”

Another trainee had the industry experience, but lacked confidence—the result of an abusive relationship. During her contract with HWTC, her life changed: she regained her sense of self, moved into a home, and was able to provide for her son. Nick recounts: “On her birthday, I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve given you the day off.’ And she said, ‘I’m just so happy. I compare each birthday to how I was the previous year. I was in a shelter. I’m not anymore.’”

At first, recalls Nick, who was brought on to help with business development, Hawthorne was simply telling its food story—the one about local, seasonal and sustainable cuisine. But, now, people know there’s something even more profound behind it. “In any other restaurant job,” he explains, “I probably wouldn’t have hired somebody who didn’t have a resume of experience. But, coming here, I see that, with a little patience, people can be brought so far. That lens has completely changed for me.”

Of course, training is never the excuse; it’s a strength. According to Nick, a closer eye on detail translates to a superior customer experience. Together with a bold food mandate, this is what fuels Hawthorne’s compelling, evolving story line. And, judging by its growing clientele, it’s one that’s really catching on.

But, that’s not surprising, because it’s a story that belongs to us all. It’s your support, as caring donors and loyal diners, that is helping to write the transformative narratives of those who pass through its doors.