FareStart CEO Megan Karch is brimming with excitement as she offers a tour of the 10,000 square feet of space her nonprofit will soon occupy in Beacon Hill’s Pacific Tower, the grand Art Deco building that Amazon.com emptied in 2011. “This was a kind of needle in a haystack,” says Karch.
A 22-year-old organization that trains homeless and disadvantaged individuals for a career in food service, FareStart was looking to expand dramatically when the Pacific Tower came its way. The nonprofit’s restaurant on Seventh Avenue and Virginia Street was doing well. It had built a thriving business providing meals to child-care centers, shelters, and other community institutions. And its catering service had “exploded,” says Karch, a success she attributes in part to people wanting to spend their money on a worthy organization while celebrating important moments in their lives. All these services are staffed by the group’s students, currently numbering 320 a year.
With nearly 9,000 homeless people in the Seattle area, there is no end to potential students. Yet FareStart couldn’t take any more at its Belltown location. For a year and a half, it searched for an additional site that wouldn’t cost a fortune, which in all likelihood meant one with an existing kitchen the organization could renovate.
Construction on what will be the cafeteriaEnter the Pacific Tower—formerly known as the PacMed Center due to the health-care clinics that have long operated in the building’s bottom floors. Amazon’s departure left a gaping hole; the majestic tower’s eerie emptiness even gave rise to ghost sightings. But the online giant also left a 4,000-square-foot kitchen, once used to service the company dining hall. Bingo.
Walking up a modern wire staircase that Amazon installed, Karch shows off the large space.
She passes a pizza oven covered with construction rubble—an Amazon relic that will go. What will stay are industrial exhaust hoods with shafts that go up to the roof, as well as a bank of refrigerated rooms—all very pricey equipment.
“The other reason this is a major ideal scenario for us is that we’re in a tower with all these other nonprofits,” Karch says. Such is the rescue plan for Pacific Tower, dreamed up largely by legislator Frank Chopp. To avoid the tower being sold off for condos, Chopp promoted the idea of an “innovation tower” filled with health-care-oriented organizations that have a potential to work together. Seattle Central College will be one of its biggest tenants, and will soon move its nursing and dental-hygiene programs, among others, into the building.
FareStart will serve food to Seattle Central’s staff and students, as well as others inhabiting the building, and operate two “grab and go” cafes on the first two floors. Karch indicates where each will go, but all the while she’s itching to go up to the eighth floor—a communal function space for all the nonprofits, also available for public rental, and only FareStart will cater events there. One step onto the eighth floor and it’s clear why Karch has been dying to show it off. Rimmed by windows, it offers a drop-dead panoramic view—the downtown skyline and the Sound beyond, stretching from the Cascades to the Olympics—that easily rivals the Smith Tower’s.
Even though FareStart isn’t scheduled to move in until September, Karch says the organization is already fielding calls from people wanting to have their weddings here.
FareStart’s expansion plan does not come without challenges: The organization is seeking not only to nearly double its number of students, but to improve their lives. Two years ago it embarked on a survey of its graduates, which revealed that only about half were making a living wage. Their average pay was $11.26 an hour, whereas a “self-sufficiency” calculator developed by the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County estimates that a single parent, for example, would need close to $19 an hour.
CEO Megan Karch showing off the space in Pacific TowerThe low wages of FareStart graduates don’t surprise Saru Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national advocacy group for food-service workers. She calls this industry “the absolute lowest-paying.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Data provided by her group show that the median wage for food-service jobs in the Seattle area is $10.92 an hour. Even local cooks, some of them tens of thousands of dollars in debt to culinary schools, earn a median of only $12.70 an hour (excepting chefs and head cooks, who earn nearly double that).
One group of restaurant workers earns more, Jayaraman notes: fine-dining servers and bartenders, who at the very high end can earn as much as $100,000 a year. Her group works with DC Central Kitchen, a Washington, D.C., organization similar to FareStart, to train its graduates for this higher-end work. Jayaraman says ROC, which in April opened an office in Seattle, would be interested in doing something similar with FareStart.
That also sounds good to Karch, whose organization currently trains students only for back-of-the-house jobs, but has decided to venture into front-of-the-house training. FareStart tried this twice before, but found that only 20 percent of graduates looking for front-of-the-house jobs were getting them. Still, that was a while ago, and Karch says FareStart is ready to try again. Meanwhile, Seattle’s just-enacted $15-an-hour minimum-wage law could be a boon to many FareStart graduates—although Karch says that it might also bring more competition, if food-service workers from surrounding cities descend on the town.
Ultimately, some FareStart students might want to get out of the food business altogether, Karch recognizes. And here’s where the proposed “innovation tower” might come into play: Both Karch and Lincoln Ferris, a consultant for Seattle Central College working on the tower project, say they are thinking about exposing FareStart students to other types of classes offered by the college. In a place of sweeping vistas, a homeless student might set her sights on becoming a cook, but wind up a dental hygienist instead.