These Cafés Offer Fresh Food – And a Fresh Start for Employees

Two local café’s have a mission that will warm your soul and your stomach

Poverty and unemployment can strike at anytime; all it takes is a life-altering tragedy or set of bad circumstances. Falling down the hole is much easier than climbing out, but, in Orange County, the Regional Economic Community Action Program (RECAP) will throw you a rope.  One portal out of poverty that RECAP provides can be found in a place you might not expect — the kitchen.

The Fresh Start Café, operating locations in Newburgh and Middletown, is a full-service café and skills incubator modeled after a pioneering program in Seattle, Washington. Seasoned chefs coach a staff of unemployed individuals, helping them meet their public assistance work requirement while giving them soft and technical skills. In recent years, the Café has partnered with non-profits such as Pathstone, Pathways, and ARC to extend the service to disabled individuals, and seniors who lack adequate retirement income.

The café offers an entry point into a new field for folks who are stuck. “Ninety percent of the staff are inexperienced so you can’t just shout orders at them like in other kitchens; you have to be patient and teach,” explained Benito Vona, executive chef of the Middletown location.  “On Mondays, we develop a menu based around what inspires us and what we have on hand,” Vona said. The environment at the café is friendly and warm. “The staff and I like putting smiles on people’s faces by filling their bellies,” he said. Vona’s soft touch with his staff, most of whom have endured crushing hard times, earned him theChampion of Trauma” award from the Orange County Trauma Institute — a first for a chef.

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Some of Fresh Start Café Middletown’s weekly specials 

Former trainees have leveraged their skills to get jobs in fast-paced kitchens like Billy Joe’s Ribworks among others. RECAP COO Michele McKeon says the model has been so successful that it is slated to open in two new locations. There are also ideas brewing about offering graduating trainees oversight of their own food truck operation, with the option to eventually own.  

The program’s success owes a great deal to the food itself. Menus designed by Vona and Newburgh executive chef, and CIA grad, Bill Wilklow, draw steady customers for catering, breakfast, and lunch. The Middletown location has clear influences from Vona’s Italian upbringing, like bruschetta and stuffed tomato, while Wilklow’s Newburgh kitchen focuses more on American deli classics like pastrami reubens, and decadent and always-tempting magic cookie bars. Prices are a few dollars less than you would normally expect for the quality, plus you get added karma points for supporting the cause.

The Newburgh location can be found in the back of the Neighborhood Business and Resource Center at 280 Broadway — they are working on moving it to a more conspicuous location. The Middletown cafe is also rather hidden in the HONORehg emergency housing complex at 38 Seward Ave. This location is delivery only, though a sit-down location will be opening soon on Mill Street.  All locations are available for catering.

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Fresh Start Café Newburgh
280 Broadway, Newburgh, NY 12550

Fresh Start Café Middletown
38 Seward Ave, Middletown, NY 10940


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