Fresh Abilities employees to have new opportunities through Clark State partnership

Beginning this month, The Abilities Connection (TAC) will partner with Clark State College to launch a classroom portion of training for Fresh Abilities employees.

TAC is an organization in Springfield that empowers people with disabilities and other barriers to reach their full potential through meaningful employment, training, and support.

Launched at COhatch - The Market in June of 2020, Fresh Abilities was established by TAC as a unique training program that creates a pipeline for workers with disabilities and other barriers interested in working in the food service industry.

Fresh Abilities employees complete more than110 hours of training in food service, including food safety and preparation, customer service, and other related skills. Trainees then transition to working in the Fresh Abilities restaurant to gain hands-on experience in an in-demand industry before pursuing employment at other local food service businesses.

This partnership between TAC and Clark State will allow for additional instruction to encompass skill-building for future employment in any type of restaurant. And, having classroom training on the Clark State campus, a new group of prospective students who may never have anticipated attending college will be exposed to higher education. 

“TAC is looking forward to growing our food service training in partnership with Clark State. Enabling people with disabilities and other barriers to learn and train in a college environment is unique for the food industry,” says Jim Zahora, CEO of The Abilities Connection. “We are also extremely grateful to COhatch for their partnership over the last three years.

"The Fresh Abilities concept was born from conversations with COhatch, and the location was ideal for TAC team members to interact and engage with the community. It is time to take this concept to the next level.”

Fresh Abilities will relocate to the Eagle’s Nest at Clark State’s Leffel Lane campus, with a soft opening scheduled for March. By operating the restaurant at Clark State, trainees will be able to do both their classroom and hands-on training in the same building.

The restaurant facility at Clark State also provides the space and equipment necessary for Fresh Abilities to expand their menu, which allows for even more skill-building and experience to help build trainees’ resumes for future employment.

“I’m excited (about the move to Clark State)”, says Dee Humphrey, a Fresh Abilities employee. “I’m interested in seeing what the space looks like and to learn more about all we can do there.”

Gerritt Smith, director of Workforce and Business Solutions at Clark State, says the educational piece is important because Clark State is working with TAC to create a thorough curriculum for individuals to learn the culinary industry from food preparation, customer service, handling diversity in the workplace and effectively communicating with others.

“This is exciting for us to have something new to add to our menu of development opportunities to the community and organizations,” says Smith. “We are always looking to partner with organizations like TAC to provide solutions, and this relationship will allow us to build off the great work TAC has already done and how they are preparing individuals for a career in the restaurant industry.”

Smith says that with the food service industry continuing to face a critical worker shortage, skilled and experienced employees are highly sought after.

“We are proud to prepare our trainees with the skills they need to be successful and for helping to connect our graduates with local food service businesses who are looking for high-quality staff,” Zahora says.

TAC is excited about opening the restaurant to serve the students and staff at Clark State, but Fresh Abilities also welcomes the entire community and current customers to continue to dine with them, Zahora says. .

“There is open dining available in the restaurant area, as well as a beautiful outside patio,” he says. “Additionally, we will continue to offer curbside pick-up and Door Dash so you can get your Fresh Abilities fix even when you are in a hurry or can’t get out of the office or house. We are excited for our customers to try our new menu items as they launch.”

And, for customers wondering what's next for the space Fresh Abilities is leaving at COhatch, it will soon be filled by a new vendor. 

"We're working with a new New York deli-style concept that will have stacked-high deli sandwiches, homemade soups and salads," says Pat Williams, operating partner for COhatch in Springfield.

While plans are still being finalized, Williams says the goal will be to open the new shop in March, and it will serve both lunch and dinner. 

Williams says the plans for the Fresh Abilities move started a few months ago, which gave COhatch time to connect with interested tenants. 

"We're happy for TAC because this transition is what's best for them and their folks with the classes available through Clark State," Williams says. "And, at the same time, we're happy to be able to offer something new to our loyal customer base."

COhatch was designed to offer local artisans "an easier runway to opening their own restaurant," Williams says, adding that the COhatch restaurant spaces use a shared expense model that is often more feasible for owners just getting started versus carrying all the costs alone. 

"I think we always imagined when we built this that our restaurant tenants would hopefully bust out of our space and eventually grow into something bigger. We see ourselves as an incubator for people who want to open their own restaurant someday," Williams says. "We are not hoping that any of our restaurants leave, but we do understand that we offer a springboard for beginning businesses."

Read more articles by Darci Jordan.