Smoke Berkeley hires workers who’ve fallen on hard times

By Trisha Thadani at SFGate, Friday, February 17, 2017.

Tears sit on the edge of Tina Ferguson-Riffe’s eyes as she talks about the people her modest barbecue restaurant in west Berkeley has saved.

There’s April Jones, a struggling single mother. And Michael Rachal, a father of five who couldn’t find a job after spending 10 months in jail.

“I always want something bigger from them,” she said as Jones, who is now off welfare, and Rachal, one of her managers, buzzed around the kitchen behind her.

Smoke Berkeley is in a small building tucked away next to a gas station in a working-class, largely African American neighborhood. Since opening in 2010, Ferguson-Riffe — “Mama T” to her employees — focuses on hiring and training people who normally wouldn’t get a chance anywhere else.

Three current employees came from Rubicon Programs, a nonprofit that helps low-income or homeless people or those with mental illness find supportive services. Her employees include the formerly incarcerated and people with severe head trauma and learning disabilities. She pays most of her employees more than Berkeley’s minimum wage of $12.53 an hour.

“No one else would look past that detail on my application,” the 45-year-old Rachal said of his felony gun-possession charge from five years ago.

Smoke Berkeley is one of six winners of JobTrain’s 2017 Economic Opportunity Awards, which recognizes businesses in the Bay Area that have taken action to bridge the divide that keeps those seeking work from opportunities.

For the string of regulars who circled through the restaurant during the afternoon rush on Tuesday, the backgrounds of the workers who served them didn’t seem to matter. One customer, Mike Enriquez, settled down with a plate of smoked brisket, jalapeño mac and cheese, and collard greens.

“This is some of the best brisket in the country,” said Enriquez, who found Smoke Berkeley two years ago after smelling the hickory smoke from the street.

Ferguson-Riffe’s workers taste more than barbecue, though. In every plate they serve up, they see a future for themselves and their families.

“This job helped me get off welfare and from riding the bus to having my own car,” Jones, 37, said. “My daughters have watched me go from struggling with bills to no worries.”

Running the restaurant is expensive and a lot of work, Ferguson-Rife said. Quality meat is pricey, and a lot of labor goes into rubbing and smoking it. And, most importantly, she wants to pay her employees what they deserve.

But it’s all worthwhile, she said. Because as someone who grew up eating smoked meat and was also unemployed for a few years, she knows how important second chances — and good barbecue — can be.

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