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The Bridge Café in SLO offers tasty fare, culinary training for formerly incarcerated individuals

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If you're in the mood for handcrafted, delicate pastries or savory burgers, sandwiches, and salads loaded with gourmet, locally sourced ingredients, The Bridge Café on Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo is calling your name.

The beautifully decorated space—with murals from local artists displayed inside and adjacent to its sun-drenched patio—is the city's latest hotspot for daytime dining, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.

The eatery, fresh off its Feb. 1 launch, already boasts a packed lunchtime crowd as well as a swelling list of potential catering clients, keeping General Manager Eric Blanco, head chef Jason Hunter, and head baker Steven Cartwright busy and elated.

FEEL-GOOD FOOD The Bridge Café in SLO General Manager Eric Blanco and cashier-barista Heidi Hendrix welcome guests for breakfast and lunch, and to help give a second chance for justice-involved employees such as Hendrix. - PHOTO BY CHERISH WHYTE
  • Photo By Cherish Whyte
  • FEEL-GOOD FOOD The Bridge Café in SLO General Manager Eric Blanco and cashier-barista Heidi Hendrix welcome guests for breakfast and lunch, and to help give a second chance for justice-involved employees such as Hendrix.

For Hunter and Cartwright, who were formerly incarcerated, the restaurant isn't just about dishing up tasty cuisine. It's about paying it forward, helping individuals like themselves reintegrate into mainstream society by learning a trade and securing living-wage employment, which is one of the goals of the eatery's parent organization, Restorative Partners.

"I've been part of Restorative Partners since 2012, almost since the beginning," said Cartwright of Grover Beach. "I've been in custody previously, and Sister Theresa [Harpin]—who founded the organization in 2011—has been a huge part of my life.

"As head baker at Bridge Café, I'm expanding my culinary knowledge, and I'm also part of something bigger than me. I'm giving back, and I can't think of a better person to give back to than Sister Theresa."

MEET THE CHEFS Head chef Jason Hunter, left, of San Luis Obispo and lead cook Jhonatan Coronel of Santa Maria crank out juicy burgers and sandwiches at SLO's The Bridge Café. - COURTESY PHOTO BY STEPHEN HERALDO/HERALDO CREATIVE STUDIO
  • Courtesy Photo By Stephen Heraldo/heraldo Creative Studio
  • MEET THE CHEFS Head chef Jason Hunter, left, of San Luis Obispo and lead cook Jhonatan Coronel of Santa Maria crank out juicy burgers and sandwiches at SLO's The Bridge Café.

Blanco, of Arroyo Grande—who serves as the nonprofit organization's interim director of social enterprises—jumped at the chance to helm The Bridge Café, a novel enterprise that "builds on the continuum of care provided by Restorative Partners from incarceration through incorporation by offering on-the-job training and a culinary certification through a partnership with Cuesta College," he explained.

"The culinary program is offered every semester at Cuesta, with North County offerings coming soon," Blanco said. "No previous restaurant experience is required, just a willingness to learn and challenge themselves for the culinary program."

The core group's collective hospitality experience, however, runs deep.

THE OLD WESTERN BURGER At only $13, The Bridge Café's most expensive lunch item—along with the vegan burger—features a fluffy brioche bun, beef patty, bacon, smoked cheddar, onion rings, and chef Jeff Hunter's proprietary Bridge Sauce. - COURTESY PHOTO BY STEPHEN HERALDO/HERALDO CREATIVE STUDIO
  • Courtesy Photo By Stephen Heraldo/heraldo Creative Studio
  • THE OLD WESTERN BURGER At only $13, The Bridge Café's most expensive lunch item—along with the vegan burger—features a fluffy brioche bun, beef patty, bacon, smoked cheddar, onion rings, and chef Jeff Hunter's proprietary Bridge Sauce.

Blanco's 15-plus years in the restaurant industry include positions as food production manager at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande Community Hospital, and catering supervisor for Cal Poly Campus Dining.

Hunter, meanwhile—who met Harpin in 2013 while incarcerated at San Luis Obispo County Jail—completed two years of training at the San Diego Culinary Institute in La Mesa prior to launching his restaurant career, and he now adeptly supervises The Bridge Café's kitchen crew.

Blanco calls the menu "all-inclusive," a nod to the diverse staff—not all of whom have criminal backgrounds—and their unique culinary styles.

The cuisine is primarily Central Coast-focused, "but we hope to serve up more flavors of the world," he said.

Locally sourced products include Taco Works chips, Bautista Family Farms produce, Sunshine Bottle Works yerba mate, Whalebird Kombucha beverages, Honey Bee SLO desserts, Bliss River Organics elderberry syrup, assorted flours from Bread Bike Bakery, Deltina Coffee Roasters, and more.

"We proudly make our baked goods in-house," Blanco added. "The quiche is made with love and takes two days to ... perfect. The croissants from Back Porch Bakery come raw, then we proof and bake them here every morning."

Cartwright experiments with different pastries and breads, though his specialty is sourdough. His current lineup includes Irish soda bread, just in time for St. Patrick's Day. Pick up a loaf at the café or try his recipe at home.

IT'S A WRAP Lighter fare at SLO's The Bridge Café includes the Turk-E-Delight, with turkey, provolone, butter leaf lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayonnaise. - PHOTO BY CHERISH WHYTE
  • Photo By Cherish Whyte
  • IT'S A WRAP Lighter fare at SLO's The Bridge Café includes the Turk-E-Delight, with turkey, provolone, butter leaf lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayonnaise.

Guests are invited to order at the counter or online, dine in or takeout, and savor the knowledge that all proceeds from the café are funneled back into Restorative Partners' programs and services, which aim to provide skills training and care to people from the time they're incarcerated through transitioning into community life, all to reduce their chances of returning to crime.

Hunter is a huge cheerleader and poster child for the organization, which "gives people like him, who were employment-challenged due to their past, a second chance at life, as well as a good-paying job," Blanco said. "[Hunter] was someone in the system and, because of [Restorative Partners], he is now the head chef of the café, and now felony-free—meaning his whole record has been expunged thanks to [Restorative Partners] and Sister Theresa, his 'angel,' as he calls her."

Hunter said his long-term goals are to continue with Restorative Partners and The Bridge Café and help as many people as he can who are struggling like he used to.

Blanco wholeheartedly agrees: "It has been such a blessing to work here at the café and for Restorative Partners. This café is addressing the need of providing employment for an underserved community, and the reward of providing peace of mind for these individuals is worth it all."

Steven Cartwright's Irish Soda Bread

PHOTO BY CHERISH WHYTE
  • Photo By Cherish Whyte

Yields 1 loaf

  • 4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup pecans, chopped
  • 5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed

Mix the dry ingredients together, followed by the buttermilk, egg, raisins, and pecans. Add cold cubed butter and break up in the flour mixture until about the size of peas. Shape into a tight ball.

Place onto a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut criss-cross markings into the shape of an X about a quarter-inch deep into the ball.

Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes and check the internal temperature. You're looking for a temperature of 205 to 210 degrees in the center. If not done, continue cooking in five-minute intervals till the desired temperature is reached. It should be golden brown on the outside.

Chef's tip: Substitute raisins for whatever you like: currants, craisins, even chocolate chips! Serve while warm, preferably with butter. Δ

Flavor Writer Cherish Whyte has a new favorite lunch spot. Reach her at [email protected].

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