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NewCityNet Soul-Food Savior

Finding fast food redemption.

By Keith O'Brien

MARCH 30, 1998:  "God bless you," says the person who answers my call. "Thank you for calling Brown's Chicken & Pasta. How can I help you?" Customers waiting in their cars in the drive-through lane of the South Side fast-food restaurant warrant the same address. "God bless you," the employees say. In fact, every customer who enters Rev. Jeffrey Haynes' fast-food domain at 80th and Halsted can get a side of the spiritual with their three-piece chicken dinner. "God bless you," they say, and they mean it.

It all began in the summer of 1996 after Haynes called Brown's president Frank Portillo to complain that the Halsted store had been closed, thereby robbing jobs from an already rundown neighborhood. After hitting it off on the phone, the two men-one relying on guidance from above, the other looking at the bottom line-decided to make a deal that resulted in Haynes' restaurant.

That deal, which is more an experiment than anything else, received national media attention because of the radical qualities on which it is based. Under the terms of the deal, Portillo would give the Halsted franchise to Haynes, who would then transform the chicken joint into a training ground for troubled youngsters. For Haynes, 38, and the executive director of the Reach Out & Touch program-which operates a shelter, a half-way house, a youth and teen center, and two food pantries-the Brown's project represented the next step in his social services career. But for those on the outside of inspiration looking in, the idea was nice, yes, but not practical.

"Everyone thought I was pretty close to nuts," Haynes recalls, sitting in an office adjacent to the restaurant's kitchen. "Especially even Frank, who said, You're going to have kids run that store-the store that adults failed to run?' So it's phenomenal to have kids who have turned around a closed Brown's."

According to Haynes' numbers, for the first time since the restaurant reopened more than a year-and-a-half ago with a staff of teenagers, his franchise is breaking even. That report is good news for all the programs of Reach Out & Touch, which rely completely on outside funding. However, perhaps even more significant to the longevity of Haynes' work training program is the fact that his one store is on the cusp of becoming a chain of sorts itself. The Baltimore-based Urban City Foods, which owns about a hundred Burger King franchises, is about to cut a deal with Haynes similar to the one he first made with Brown's.

Pending final approval, the contract with Urban City Foods will require Haynes to train the staff of five Burger King locations in public relations and customer service. Then, in exchange for his leadership in dealing with today's youth, Haynes will receive a local Burger King franchise of his own.

Haynes, who personally gathered some $200,000 in loans and a $25,000 grant from Vision Chicago to make his restaurant operational, says his program is "changing the way foundations look at training programs across the country," because the program generates its own revenue. However, perhaps a more important result of the program is that Haynes' restaurant gives kids jobs starting at $6 an hour and maybe even a future where dreams are attainable.

Chris Brown, 21, is one of the oldest and newest employees at the store. Applying for a job at the behest of his godsister, Uretka, who already works for Haynes, Brown says his position, now two weeks old, is everything he expected and more. "It's a fun, good environment," Brown says as he fills an order for a half-pound of fried gizzard. "There's a lot of praying going on around here-over the food, before we cook it."

Brown, who dropped out of high school as a senior because he was getting roughed up by gangs, is soft-spoken and quick with a smile. But he is also quick to admit that while Haynes is spiritual, he is also a disciplinarian. He hopes some of Haynes' discipline will help him get his GED and commercial driver's license.

Tammy Arnold, 17, on the other hand, has eight months of experience at the Brown's and is about to graduate from high school this spring. With college on her mind, she also knows what she wants to do with the experience she has gained. "I want to own a business," she says simply.

That's the kind of talk Haynes wants to hear. However, making such a dream into a reality takes more than just the wish. It takes guidance and support-both of which Haynes hopes to offer more of when he launches he second fast-food venture late this summer. "If I am able to profit, I am able to invest more in the kids," he says. "So if I don't do well, I'm cheating the kids."

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