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An innovative food truck program at a South Florida Boys & Girls Club teaches teens much more than how to flip a burger. It’s preparing them for the workplace—and for life.

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No one expects a side of life skills with their burger, but that’s exactly what kids that work at The Blue CanTEEN, the food truck operated by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Collier County receive.

As part of a program to develop job skills, teens serve customers a menu that includes gourmet burgers―a brioche roll that cradles an angus steak patty topped with blue cheese, candied onions, sautéed mushrooms, and a swirl of canTEEN sauce―a savory blend of ketchup, mayo and tangy relish at catered events all over Naples, Fla.

One of the most popular items made fresh inside this kitchen-on-wheels, The Burger symbolizes what this food truck offers the junior culinary staffers who work there: something different, something new. And it tastes like opportunity, experience--and the future.

In addition to catering events in the Naples area, junior staffers who work at The Blue CanTEEN also work in the Nichols Campus kitchen preparing meals for fellow Club members. During summer, they help with breakfast and lunches for kids at a neighboring non-profit organizations. For some, it’s their first work experience. Though they get paid minimum wage as they prep and serve a food truck menu that includes mahi burritos and blackened ahi tuna nachos, they earn much more. “[The food truck program] is also about people skills and communication skills and getting out in the community,” says Chef Geoff Novins, the Collier County Club’s culinary director.

Novins, affectionately known as Chef Geoff, envisioned this innovative program as part of the Junior Staff Job Readiness initiatives that the Club offers. “I think it’s the best way for them to learn, for them to grow as people,” he says.

Learning lab on wheels

Six years ago, when the food truck scene was new in Naples, Novins imagined a Boys & Girls Club-branded truck on the streets – a rolling billboard to raise money for the Club and a place where a teen kitchen crew could get real-world experience. It’s a product of a brainstorming session with senior Club leadership and of his years of experience working at Dardin Industries restaurants and at fine-dining restaurants such as the Naples National Golf Club. “We were thinking of ways to not only get the kids more interactive and get them more life skills, but also to raise funds for the Club,” he says.

Now the food truck, painted BGCA blue, pulls up to curbs and parking lots at events that range from a Friday night wedding to a Saturday tennis tournament. It’s plastered with the empowering “CanTEEN” logo, meant to tout all that kids can do. The play on words represents the truck’s mission to teach kids:

  • kitchen skills as they prep and serve food.
  • communication skills as they interact with customers.
  • financial skills as they earn a paycheck and work the cash register. “[These kids are] taking cash, making change, taking credit cards,” Novins says.

All those skills support one of Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s big priorities: Workplace Readiness. “We do weddings, birthday parties, breweries, parties at private residences and businesses,” Novins says. “The kids are exposed to so much. It broadens their world.”

Meet Jonathan

The food truck’s catering events also introduce Naples to the poised young people who spend time at the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Nichols Campus – not just enjoying its pool, wood shop, dance studio, and rec room, but developing their abilities and discovering their interests. They meet teens like Jonathan, 18, a recent high school graduate who has worked on the food truck since 2015. “Every kid has a future,” he says, standing inside the gleaming interior of The Blue Canteen on a steamy July morning. “People come here to figure out what they’re born to do.

“Every kid was born to be successful,” he adds, a belief that the Boys & Girls Club has instilled in him.

It’s quiet inside the truck now, but soon Jonathan will join a small summertime crew to load the lunches he helped prep in the Club’s kitchen for delivery to a local non-profit. He’ll serve the children and help with clean up, spreading good food and good cheer along the way.

During the school year, he reports to the Nichols Campus kitchen after class and preps meals to serve the 500 Club members who eat dinner here each school night. At evening catering events during Naples’ high season, in fall and winter, he takes orders, visits with customers, and serves innovative dishes like mahi fish nachos, shrimp cakes, and more. “The first thing I had to learn was how to be efficient, how to be team player, and I had to learn to deal with certain people,” he says.

Shy and reserved when he first came to the Boys & Girls Club, Jonathan soon discovered he had a penchant for drawing, a gift for writing poetry, and a strong work ethic as a junior staffer. With a winning smile, he started making friends. “Now I’ve got my posse,” he says.

A self-proclaimed mama’s boy, Jonathan says his mother has noticed his new-found culinary skills, proud when he presents her with The Burger. He’s also found a sense of belonging in the kitchen. He enjoys the relationships with Novins and the Club’s other chef, Anastasios Banos, as they serve meals to Club kids and to party-goers in posh places around town. “I love coming here just ’cause [the chefs are] here,” he says.

Out in the community, he’s learned to interact with people of all ages and from all backgrounds. “People ask questions. They want to know what your life is going to be. I’ve made a lot of connections,” he says.

“I’m happy to be able to work with the kids on The Blue CanTEEN. They’ve learned life skills that they’ll take with them throughout their careers and life.”

- Bruce Nichols, Owner of The Wine Store and Supporter of Boys & Girls Club of Collier County

Connecting with the community, earning rave reviews

Jonathan has worked fundraisers where the food truck is the big draw. At The Wine Store, a boutique shop on tony Fifth Avenue, owner Bruce Nichols invites The Blue CanTEEN every second Thursday from October through May and sells tickets for a wine-pairing event. For $25, patrons enjoy two glasses of fine wine paired with an entrée from Chef Geoff’s innovative CanTEEN menu, and half of the proceeds go to support the Club.

“The kids are so engaging with the customers. It’s just amazing,” says Nichols, whose shop specializes in artisanal wines and vintages from family-run wineries. “The teens work on the truck, but they also come into the store for table service. They have personality plus, and they are kids who otherwise who wouldn’t have the opportunity to engage with the broader Naples populace.”

A Boys & Girls alum himself, Nichols looked for ways to support the Collier County Club when he opened his shop in 2017. “As a kid growing up on the streets of Philadelphia, I was at a Boys and Girls Club every day,” he says. One taste of Chef Geoff’s dishes cemented the partnership with The Blue CanTEEN. “The first thing I had was the blackened ahi tuna nachos. That sealed the deal,” he says. “It was one of the best meals I’d ever had. I thought, ‘If these guys can turn out this kind of food, this town is gonna go crazy over it. It has.”

The Wine Shop events, with room for about 35 to 40 patrons, sell out every month. “The Blue CanTEEN is one of the best restaurants in town,” Nichols says, adding that people love the sliders and the seafood, especially the tuna any way the chefs prepare it. “The menu changes every month. Naples is a wealthy community and folks here understand good food. The wines we serve are not grocery store wines, and they pair beautifully with the food truck.”

The customers aren’t the only ones who get to sample the delicious food truck fare. Novins prides himself on helping his young staffers develop their palates. “They try so much food on the truck,” he says. “You name it, they’ve tried it―from mahi to raw tuna. And they go tell their friends, and now they’re all eating different stuff.”

Beyond business

Jonathan remembers the first time he tasted mahi, back when he didn’t even know what it was. “It was good!” he says.

He is one of 37 teens who have worked on the food truck since its inception. They’ve all earned their food handler’s ServSafe Certification from the National Restaurant Association, and while not all of them plan to pursue culinary careers, Novins knows he’s giving them valuable experience. He tells them that during college years or 20 years from now, they can always get a job at a restaurant with the skills they’ve learned. “There’s a restaurant everywhere,” he says.

From understanding safe food temperatures and how to put food on racks to knife and portioning skills, they’re more experienced than many teens who graduate from high school without ever working in a professional environment. “They learn everything that goes into running a restaurant,” he says.

Food truck alums often stop by the Nichols Campus kitchen to say hello and catch up with the chefs. “The experience I’ve had, it’s life changing for sure,” says former junior kitchen staffer Clairvins Floxeril, 21, who now works as a bartender and server at a local resort while pursuing a career in aviation at SouthWestern State.

He joined the food truck team at 14, one of the youngest workers at the time. “I didn’t take it for granted– having that opportunity and using it to better myself,” he says. “As a Haitian boy, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities. Everything I learned at Boys & Girls Club I use everywhere.”

Seeing the futures unfold for past workers like Clairvins and others only inspires Jonathan as he wraps up his food truck service. He’ll attend SouthWestern, too, study business, and pursue his M.B.A.

He came to Boys & Girls Club with aspirations of becoming a professional athlete one day, but he’s leaving armed with a realistic understanding of his true talents, interests, and skill. “I’m going to be a successful businessman,” he says, flashing his broad smile with an air of confidence that leaves no doubt he’ll become just that.

Doing whatever it takes

To develop the training plan for the junior culinary staff, Novins and team used portions of the Boys & Girls Club of America’s Junior Staffers Handbook, which offers instruction for all sorts of careers. He merged some of that manual with real-world culinary ideas and concepts from the National Restaurant Association.

The result? A teen staff and quality food truck that puts the good work of the Club out into the community for all to see. It’s helped with fundraising efforts and awareness—a novel marketing tool that’s making a real difference. Novins credits Banos and the rest of the Nichols Campus staff, along with the kids themselves, for the success.

At Boys & Girls Clubs, the staff follows the philosophy of doing “whatever it takes” to help kids. “That means doing whatever it takes to get these kids to the next level. That’s not just me. That’s my team, that’s this whole Club. That’s how everyone feels here. We all do it for the kids.”

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