A new cafe operated by Topeka Unified School District 501 is allowing students to get a feel for what it takes to run a successful business while allowing area residents to get breakfast and lunch for a reasonable price.
The Kanza Cafe, which opened Jan. 22, is located in a building owned by USD 501, which formerly served as the cafeteria for the Topeka State Hospital, which closed in 1997.
Jake Taylor, food service manager for the Kanza Cafe, said much work went into sprucing up the building before it reopened last month as a restaurant.
The cafe is operated by paid adult staff members, though volunteers from USD 501 high schools assist as volunteers. Also serving as volunteers are students in the Next Step program, which teaches job and like skills to individuals ages 18 to 21 who haven't graduated yet from high school.
"They love it here," Taylor said of the volunteers. "They like getting tips, and they get food for free."
Taylor said the young adults in the Next Step program are "proud" to be wearing uniforms — including caps and aprons — while they work.
Taylor said students learn the valuable skills of customer awareness, food service, graphic design and entrepreneurship.
In time, Taylor said, he would like to see students from local high school entrepreneurship classes take a more hands-on approach to the Kanza Cafe, including in such areas as business planning, marketing and menu development.
Job skills include food design, food preparation, menu selection, safe food-handling procedures and proper food display.
Prices range from Topeka High School cinnamon rolls for 75 cents each to hamburgers for $3 to Belgian waffles for $1.50.
The lunch hour is proving to be the busiest time to date, and the work crew is learning to speed up its food preparation so people don't have to spend much time waiting for their food.
On many days, the cafe is flooded with bright sunlight that comes through its east windows, adding to the cheerfulness customers find inside the cafe.
Donna Waddle, 74, of Topeka, as she sipped a cup of coffee on Friday, said she enjoyed coming into the cafe and being greeted by "this clean, bright, shiny" cafe.
Though it has used no paid advertising, the cafe is reaping the benefits of word-of-mouth and is picking up a regular clientele.
"I really like that it's here," Waddle said. "This is the second time I've been here. I brought some friends with me today."
The cafe — which is open from 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Fridays — served its first meals less than a month ago, yet it already is attracting a regular clientele.
Niki Jahnke, food service manager for USD 501, said the Kanza Cafe seemed like a natural fit for the building.
Page 2 of 2 - She said she wasn't aware of any similar program at public schools in Kansas.
Jahnke said that though the cafe is in its first month, it is close to realizing its goal of turning a profit. She said she expects revenues to climb in coming weeks.
"I've been very proud of the success we've had so far," Jahnke said. "We actually have regular customers already."
Jahnke said she and deputy superintendent Larry Robbins came up with the idea for the Kanza Cafe.
Among regular customers who work in the area of the Kanza Cafe is Donne Njuki, 28, of Topeka. Njuki said she comes to the Kanza Cafe twice a day, and is grateful to have the new eatery near her workplace.
"They have a good variety," she sad. "Their daily specials are really good. They have really good prices. It's bright, it's clean and it's relaxed."