Emma’s Torch founder, Kerry Brodie

Founder Kerry Brodie discusses COVID-19’s impact on the culinary scene in Brooklyn, welcoming refugees, and personal finance coaching for her culinary students.

The restaurant and social enterprise Emma’s Torch in Carroll Gardens empowers refugees through culinary education and job training. Closed since March, students start back today.

Kerry Brodie, founder, executive director, Emma’s Torch spoke with TrustPlus for #TrustPlusatWork, a series exploring the benefits of personal finance coaching from TrustPlus for employers, HR professionals, and employees alike.

TrustPlus: Who is Emma’s Torch, and what do you do?

Kerry: Emma’s Torch provides culinary training and job placement services to refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking. We’re a social enterprise so we do this through operating our businesses which are a restaurant, a cafe, and a catering business all based in Brooklyn. I started working on this in 2016 and we’ve been in our current location for two-and-a-half years which is really exciting.

Emma's Torch restaurant in Brooklyn, NY

Emma’s Torch at 345 Smith Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231

What brought you to TrustPlus?

Kerry: When Covid struck we started thinking about what we can do to support our students beyond just job placement. It revealed to us that it’s all great that we place students in jobs, that their wages are going up, that they’re earning. But if we can’t equip our students with the means to figure out how to get a hold of their financial situation then we’re not preparing them for long-term sustainability. And with Covid we realized that all of our students are juggling so many responsibilities and living in very precarious situations.

When I found out about TrustPlus I was so excited about the idea of being able to connect our students with a resource to provide them with individualized financial assistance in terms of knowledge, because knowledge is power in this case.

View CNN Heroes: Emma’s Torch

How has Covid-19 impacted your business and culinary students?

Kerry: I sometimes joke, time stood still since March 17, the entire world was upended and I don’t think any industry felt it quite as acutely as the culinary industry.
In the course of a few days, we went from a thriving organization, where students were building new lives and living the American dream, to a crashing halt. Many of our students were immediately laid off from different restaurants, and many of our restaurant-owner employment partners, who we really value, have been forced to shutter their restaurants. And this has taken a huge toll.

That’s the doom and gloom side. There’s also been such an incredible outpouring of support and an understanding that we have to support one another as a community, nobody’s an island. That’s been clear, something I learn from my students pretty much every day.

Why is financial wellness important for your students?

Kerry: Our students come from all over the world, ages range from 18 to 65, some are working outside the home for the first time and getting a paycheck for the first time. Some were never able to attend school. The idea of financial wellness is something they’ve never been asked about. They’ve never had that opportunity to think about not just what do I need to survive today but what do I need to be a settled, safe person.
Our students are incredibly resilient and each of them has their own journey. Offering access to this individualized attention is just opening doors that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

What’s the story behind your name, Emma’s Torch?

Kerry: We’re named after Emma Lazarus, the poet whose poem is on the Statue of Liberty, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Something that people don’t always know about her is that she was one of the original advocates for approaching refugees as a population to be welcomed, and for this idea that the best of the United States, what makes us truly great, is welcoming in the stranger.

Emma Lazarus’s poem, The New Colossus

The 1903 bronze plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem, The New Colossus, in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, source National Park Service.

Why do you do this work?

Kerry: I used to work in public policy. Never in a million years did I think I would start anything, never worked in food before. I used to volunteer at a homeless shelter near my office in D.C. I would in the course of handing out breakfast to women at the shelter have conversations with them about the food that they had from their homes, about what eating meant to them, what they liked to cook.

There’s something so poignant about the idea that food is much more than just the calories you need throughout the day to get to the next day. Food can really sustain us and it can really build bridges. Around that time there was that photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy whose body washed up on the shores of Greece. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I would always tell my husband someone should do this. Eventually, my husband asked why not you, whose permission are you asking for?

Those were some famous last words! We ended uprooting our lives, moving to New York and it has been almost exactly five years since that conversation. It’s been the most rewarding experience I could have ever imagined and I feel really grateful every day.

Why New York?

Kerry: If we could make it happen in New York, if we could prove that we could run a restaurant that covers not only its own costs but so much of our operating budget and pays our students so they’re making a liveable wage from day one, if we could prove it could work here then it really could work anywhere.

We chose to open our restaurant in Carroll Gardens, in a very restaurant centric little part of Brooklyn where we knew that we’d have to meet high standards. I really credit our culinary director and our team, they went above and beyond the challenge every day. It has been a really big challenge but also a huge opportunity to make our mark here.

Emma's Torch restaurant, Brooklyn, NY

Photo by Cole Wilson for The New Yorker

What’s it like working with TrustPlus?

Kerry: We’re at the beginning of the process but it has been so easy and helpful to work with Milly (Milagros DuBouchet, lead business development manager). From the first five seconds of our conversation, it was so clear that we were on the same page and that we wanted to get this going quickly. So often with these things, we’re so eager to get these tools to our students and it’s so nice to have a partner like that.

Kerry spoke with TrustPlus on October 2, 2020. The conversation was edited for length, clarity.

Read the original article on Medium here.

TrustPlus is now offering our financial coaching services for free for the rest of the year to small businesses and their workers, as well as providing critical resources to protect workers and families impacted financially by COVID-19. Learn more about our relief efforts.