This article was published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 24, 2022, written by Abby Mackey.

Tammy Thompson hopes to be out of a job someday. Again.

About 10 years ago, she was fired without warning. She spent time searching for another job using all of her contacts and know-how to no avail.

Her savings was gone. She cashed out her 401(k). Just to get by, she started cooking and selling meals out of her home, which exposed her to an “underground food economy” where improperly licensed and insured individuals, who happen to be great cooks, sell food to “bridge the gap between what they’re earning in their jobs and how much it costs to support their families.”

It’s risky business, literally, drawing potential negative attention from the county Health Department, IRS and others. But where others might see infractions, Thompson, who’s now the executive director of multifaceted anti-poverty organization Catapult Greater Pittsburgh, saw untapped talent.

Later this month, the first-ever Catapult Culinary cohort will finish the program with “legitimized” food businesses and a set of skills some say they never could have acquired on their own. And because of a new partnership with Allegheny Health Network, some of those skills were obtained by working in a large-scale commercial kitchen available to them 24 hours a day.

“I want to figure out how to end poverty as we know it,” Thompson said. “The only way to really do that is to change policies, change systems and make economic opportunity more accessible. I don’t want to do this work for the rest of my life. I don’t want it to be needed.”

End of the Circle

In 2014, Thompson became a consultant for Circles Greater Pittsburgh, the local leg of a national anti-poverty organization, and became the executive director in 2018. But some of its model was “unsettling” to her in that it didn’t address urban poverty, or more specifically, how poverty impacts Black communities.

“It was really important to me that we were developing programming that was really culturally competent, that was addressing the historic complexes that have kept Black families out of economic opportunities for generations,” she said.

Her team decided to pull away from the Circles model in 2020, rename it Catapult Greater Pittsburgh, and reorient the mission toward the needs of “systemically disenfranchised” populations with a focus on housing, asset building and entrepreneurship.

Tammy Thompson, Executive Director of Catapult Greater Pittsburgh.
(Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)

As the organization changed, COVID-19 changed the world, which unearthed an “upsetting” trend, especially among food business owners: “A lot of the Black entrepreneurs we work with were working but had not legitimized their businesses.”

Improper licensing doesn’t just risk legal trouble, but also it causes those business owners to forfeit access to assistance programs, which proliferated during the pandemic. With neither, there’s little chance for economic growth.

‘Just a dream’

Nicole Porterfield-Miller’s family always knew where their food came from, such as from-scratch home cooks and urban gardeners.

When she became a manager at Giant Eagle, and saw what the catering team created, she thought, “I can do that.”

In 2015, she started putting together artistically arranged fruit and veggie trays “for pure enjoyment” and a “stress reliever,” but joining the food industry full-time was just a dream until she saw a Facebook ad for Catapult Culinary.

Darryl Robinson, chef and owner of Deez Catering, and Nicole Porterfield-Miller, chef and owner of Cafe NikkiP, walk through the commercial kitchen at the former Allegheny General Hospital Suburban Campus in Bellevue.
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

“The restaurant industry can be super intimidating from the outside,” she said. “I thought, ‘This could be my time now to get in there, not be intimidated, learn what I need to learn and be around people like me who don’t understand everything yet.’”

More than 100 applicants vied for 15 spots in Catapult Culinary’s first cohort. Since August 2021, the group meets for three hours each month to hear from experts: lawyers, accountants, chefs and others. And they’re matched with mentors from Food 21, a Pittsburgh-area organization focused on the food economy, for twice-monthly (or more) meetings to guide them through gaining an LLC, an Employer Identification Number, becoming certified food safety managers and addressing personalized needs.

But Porterfield-Miller, 37, won’t just put together those toward fancy fruit trays. As her cohort finishes the program at the end of the month, she’ll open a breakfast spot — with a catering menu — in New Kensington called Café NikkiP.

“I wouldn’t be opening my café without them, 100% no,” she said. “It would still be just a dream.”

More than cooking

As the child of a hardworking single mother, Darryl Robinson was a “latch-key kid,” who learned to cook out of necessity, no matter how bare the cabinets.

“Mom used to always joke, ‘There may not be food in the house, but Darryl will make a meal,’” he retells with a laugh.

Darryl Robinson, left, chef and owner of Deez Catering, admires the 12-burner stove as he speaks with Lachelle Bell, director of entrepreneurship for Catapult Greater Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

As a young man, he jumped from one blue-collar job to another: landscaping to house painting and more. One morning his early 20s, he was again cooking for himself, frustrated with his path while he shimmied an omelette inside a pan. “What could I possibly do with my life?” he asked himself until he realized the bright yellow answer was staring him in the face.

He was a part of Bidwell Training Center’s first culinary class, and now, about 25 years later, he’s a part of Catapult’s first cohort.

Different from many, his catering business, Deez Catering, already had an LLC, and after working as a manager in the food service industry, he understood food budgets and nitty-gritty food safety rules. But he was never responsible for keeping his own lights on.

“When you launch your own business, you learn that you can be the greatest cook in the world, but if you have no idea how to run a business, it’s not going to work,” he said.

Catapult surveyed small-scale food entrepreneurs before constructing the culinary program, which is part of why it includes topics such as marketing, understanding the economics of inventory and how to create products that can land on grocery store shelves.

Ninety-percent of respondents said the lack of access to commercial kitchen space was one of the biggest barriers to growing their businesses. Catapult listened.

No more commando

Robinson previously rented kitchen space, a business style he calls “commando catering.” But toward the end of his time in the program, Catapult signed a lease with AHN for the 6,000-square-foot commercial kitchen space at the former AHN Suburban campus in Bellevue, which is being revived as “a center for innovation and community wellness.”

“Our whole premise here is to breathe new life into this building and make it into a community asset,” said Monica Malik, senior program manager of innovations at AHN. The building, so far, includes a life science accelerator and office space, and there are plans to develop programming with a local school district.

For Catapult Culinary participants, it’s not only a place to meet and learn but also to grow their businesses, thanks to 24-hour access to the kitchen, a development Robinson calls “huge.”

That all-hours access is vital to Thompson, who knows these start-up entrepreneurs are “some of the most hardworking people on the planet,” who use any available time to chase their desire for economic independence and careers they love, not just need.

“I feel it’s my responsibility to change this narrative for people in poverty,” she said. “People just assume that they’re sitting around waiting for someone to give them a handout. They work 15 or 18 hours a day just to make ends meet. We want to be here so they don’t have to work so hard.”

➡ Learn more about Catapult.