Step one: Wash your hands. Step two: Pray.
Tyler Peoples, director of social enterprise, and Jason Horn, catering manager, have created a unique culture in their kitchen that begins at the start of each workday at Mission Catering. A culture of encouragement not competition.
The men and women who work in the kitchen come from different backgrounds but have a substantial commonality: They are in the process of rebuilding their lives. When I visit, four are students from the addiction recovery program at Springs Rescue Mission (SRM); four more are full-time employees (some graduates of the program); and several others have been placed there through Colorado Works, the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
Peoples and Horn train their team in culinary arts and catering, offer networking opportunities and motivate each person to believe in his or her own value. The tangible skills developed by team members are necessary for rebuilding, but it is clear that Peoples’ highest priority is instilling his staff with self-confidence and hope for the future.
When Peoples arrived at SRM in 2014, Mission Catering barely existed. Operated as a small side business out of the back of Samaritan’s Kitchen, SRM’s daily free dinner service, Mission Catering handled the occasional catering request and made little profit. Due to the vision of Jeff Cook, vice president of entrepreneurship and work at SRM, and Peoples’ originative leadership, the social enterprise’s profits grew to $10,000 in a month in 2014 and now triples that with a single event.
Prior to SRM, Peoples had invested many long nights, weekends and holidays in the Colorado Springs culinary scene, but he dreamed of more. He wanted to feed hungry people—those hungry for opportunity. He had applied at SRM multiple times over a decade, but a chance meeting with one of its leaders at a conference opened the door. “Don’t give up,” Peoples says. “If you want to do it, do it like you want it to turn out well.”
It’s his pioneering optimism that has brought Peoples success in the kitchen and in life. He found his passion for cooking as a young kid helping his mom clean the Briarhurst Manor in the ’90s. He looked up to the chefs at the Briarhurst with their big white hats and coats, European accents and the magic they made from foods he had never before tasted. “I’m going to be the executive chef right here!” he informed his older brother as they lugged kitchen mats out for cleaning. About 20 years later he was. He fulfilled that role for several years, was chef de cuisine at The Warehouse and opened 2South Food + Wine Bar before joining SRM. Peoples’ experience, along with multiple awards such as Chef of the Year, 2014, by the American Culinary Federation, have all come from what he calls “the cost of tuition in life.”
He is not a culinary school graduate. Rather, Peoples has invested thousands of hours working in the restaurant industry under the mentorship of notable local chefs such as Jay Gust, the owner of Ascent Restaurant Group. “He’s a compassionate soul,” says Gust. “He has a great amount of patience and compassion and reverence … you need to have [those] to facilitate what he’s doing right now.”
Peoples recognizes there is no easy route. “Things take longer and cost more than you’d expect,” he says. “You can’t avoid the learning process. … You have to pay for it somehow.”
His own path gives him greater understanding of the time and effort his team members will have to invest for the life changes they dream of. When people are in the rebuilding process—whether reentering civilian life after a prison sentence, overcoming addiction issues or seeking asylum in a new country—it is difficult to take the next step. “So hard that people don’t take it,” Peoples says.
But his students have made that first step, and his role is to encourage them to keep moving forward. “You always have the opportunity to quit, so you just don’t take it,” he says. “You can’t let [mistakes] bury you. You’re going to have scars, but they’re usually worth it.”
Peoples’ students affectionately call him Tyler the Tyrant, which he believes gives his warm and welcoming reputation some street cred. But as their leader, Peoples is skilled at the balance of pushing them forward. “We have fun here,” says Tim, a student who wants to go into banquet or kitchen management.
Team members will become proficient in culinary craft throughout their time at Mission Catering. They will discover confidence and taste success. Not only can they prepare and serve beautiful canapes and choice cuts, they can hold down jobs, remain sober, and build and sustain healthy relationships. They will prove the faith Peoples has had in them all along.
Taste of The Mission
To sample Mission Catering’s products, try the breakfast burritos at Building Three Coffee, salads and sandwiches at Cafe 225, or hire them for your private party.