The orzo salad served at the Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery, the sauerkraut on the Reubens at The Coopers Tavern, the curtido on the sandwiches at the Washington Hotel Coffee Room: They're all made by people who have struggled with homelessness, disability or drug and alcohol problems. 

Porchlight, the Madison organization that helps the homeless, produces about 25 food products sold in a half-dozen locations and used in top-tier restaurants. Porchlight Products was on target to take in $40,000 to $50,000 in 2010, all of which is pumped back into the program, paying for ingredients and payroll for its eight part-time employees.

"A big part of the program is that it is providing empowerment and work experience for formerly homeless and disabled adults," said Jennifer Hall, former kitchen programs manager for Porchlight Products, who left last month to take a job with Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery.

Some of the employees live in Porchlight housing at the organization's headquarters at 306 N. Brooks St., where seven burners on the 10-burner stove were firing full blast in the building's licensed commercial kitchen on a recent weekday afternoon. Pots of applesauce were on the counter.

"They are making small batches. It's very hands-on," Hall said, noting that the apples are peeled by hand. "There's not much in the way of automation."

Tim Hastert, 41, was canning jars of curtido, a cabbage relish, made with carrots, onion, garlic and jalapenos in a vinegar brine. 

"This place has helped me out a lot," said Hastert, who has lived in the building for three years, but has never been homeless. He credits Porchlight for helping him get sober and giving him a job.

"Things have really taken off in the two years I've worked here," he said. 

Register for more free articles
Stay logged in to skip the surveys

The program was started in 2006 in part because Porchlight's kitchen was being under-used. The organization enlisted restaurant consultants Nancy Christy and Andrea Craig, the former owners of the erstwhile Wilson Street Grill, which employed disabled people in the kitchen. The seed money came from a grant from the Madison Community Foundation. 

When the enterprise started, restaurants like Lombardino's and the Old Fashioned gave Porchlight proprietary recipes and Porchlight produced those recipes, Christy said. After Hall took over, Porchlight Products began creating its own recipes to sell to restaurants and started producing the products it sells in local stores and at craft and product fairs.

"There was an underlying goal that not only would it be economically sustaining (but) that it would also change the paradigm of people who have been formerly homeless actually working to solve other social goals, namely supporting local farms," Christy said.

Robert Cary, 30, who has worked in the Porchlight kitchen for nine months, called it a great work environment, where people are laid-back and down-to-earth. His favorite thing to make is the vinaigrette orzo salad. "It's a lot of preparation and it tastes good — it tastes very good," he said.

Not only does Porchlight sell its orzo salad to the Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery, it also sells pancake mix to the East Side restaurant, the biggest retail seller of Porchlight Products.

"They are quality products," said Kathy Brooks, the restaurant's owner. "They are well made and I think people like the cause. Most people recognize it when they come in."

Hall said the program gives value to a population that tends to be marginalized and dismissed due to the disabilities and mental health problems some of them have.

"We are here," she said, "and we're proving that that's wrong."

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

Subscribe to our Politics email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.