In addition to ice cream and coffee, Chill On Park proudly serves other treats like cookies, brownies, and muffins from Haley House Bakery Cafe in Roxbury. But behind the delectable sweets in our glass case is a story—a story of hospitality, community, and inspiration. We recently had a wonderful visit at the cafe where we met with Catering/Wholesale Manager Jason Palmeira and learned so much more about this amazing organization.
Haley House first got its start 50 years ago by Kathe and John McKenna, right on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. (Back in the ‘60s, that area was nothing like it is today.) Kathe and John opened their apartment to the men, mostly veterans, whom they found sleeping on the street. They got to know some of the people, started cooking dinner for them, and invited them to sleep over. That expanded to the point when their friends got involved, and they eventually bought the entire 23 Dartmouth Street building. The first floor was made into a soup kitchen, and the rest of the building turned into a live-in community center with shared rooms and space.
When we met with Jason recently, he told us that homelessness remains a problem in the area, though it has changed from mostly veterans to ex-offenders. Once veterans started getting more overall support, the new population needed help. The ex-offenders worked in the soup kitchen; but although they were taught some crucial skills, they just couldn’t manage to find steady employment because of their criminal records. Housing expanded, but there were still no opportunities for other jobs. This was a problem.
So, about 15 years ago, the McKennas thought, “Why don’t we offer jobs ourselves? Why don’t we solve the problem?”
The Haley House Cafe started 10 years ago with the purpose to employ men who couldn’t find employment. It has expanded and changed considerably over time, and the cafe later turned into a means to support the program in other areas. Catering began six or seven years ago when regular customers requested large batches of items like sandwiches. (Today, catering makes up around 2/3 of the cafe’s total revenue!) Between cafe sales, catering and wholesale sales, Haley House Bakery Cafe is nearly self-sufficient.
“The majority is funded by our own operation,” Jason said. “That’s the biggest difference between us and almost any other restaurant in Boston. When I say I work at a nonprofit cafe, people are like, ‘Is that a thing? Does that exist?’”
Today, Haley House is empowering and supporting employees in any way they can. The organization as a whole recently purchased the entire building in which the cafe is located, with two apartments upstairs to rent out. The organization also owns around 120 units of housing in Boston; it’s not structured in a manner of government-supported or subsidized, but they’re not homeless shelters, either. The units are a semi-permanent style of living, renting for a certain amount of money depending on what the tenant can afford. The live-in community center is comprised of people who commit to a year or two, and they are required to work different facets of Haley House (whether on the urban farm they own on Fort Hill, at the soup kitchen, etc.).
Kathe and her husband wanted to keep Haley nimble and community-focused. “[Haley House] is so under the radar,” Jason said. “Dudley Square is going to change drastically in the next five years. Our focus was to buy this building so we can keep the same feel and unity through the gentrification.”
Dudley Dough, Haley House’s economic inclusion initiative in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, opened last year. Serving organic, healthful pizza, locally sourced salads, and made-from-scratch soups, Dudley Dough is a direct expression of Haley House’s mission to solve the root problem of widening economic disparities through innovative alternatives.
“The cafe is a completely separate entity than Dudley Dough,” Jason explained. That was their first expansion, and there are future plans to expand elsewhere with a mission of support and community. When [Dudley Dough] started, the community they bolstered to support was ex-offenders. Now it’s not strictly ex-offenders and homeless people, but it is inclusive of them all.
“Everyone’s here to do a job, pay bills, and better their lives,” Jason said. “It doesn’t matter if they have a criminal record. That cultural stigma is huge; it’s such a hard stigma. We’re all about eliminating the box.”
Two of the cafe chefs posing for a quick photo
A huge thank you to Jason for taking the time to tell us what Haley House is all about. And of course, try their baked goods next time you visit Chill On Park!
Jason’s favorite is the blueberry muffin, and said it’s a best-seller along with chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies. Our best sellers at Chill are the banana, blueberry, and carrot walnut muffins!
Wendy with Jeremy Thompson, a regular customer at Chill and Transitional Employment Program (TEP) Manager & Cafe Manager at Haley House Bakery Cafe