The first question for Cynthia Hart — better known to Huntsville residents as Cyn Shea — is simple: How do you do it?
The restaurant business is a notorious nightmare. Staff members steal, employees show up drunk, stoned or worse. Customers can never be satisfied. The hours are abusive. How do you survive?
Cyn Shea begins by acknowledging in warm, measured tones that all of the stress is “absolutely true. And often with exclamation points.”
And sometimes it’s more personal than other times.
“Our year got started with an employee stealing from us,” she explained. “And it’s been even more interesting throughout the entire year.”
Anyone who runs a restaurant would probably agree with Cynthia: “If you have not been called for this business, you don’t need to be in it.”
But a lot fewer would add, as she does: “It leads to a continual realization of how much we depend on the Lord for this operation.”
The Promised Land?
In Cynthia’s case, her calling to open the café that bears her name was so specific and so strong that even hurricane Katrina could not dissuade her from her mission.
She had operated successfully out of Hampton Cove for some time, but now she felt a call to move to a particularly distressed area of downtown Huntsville, practically underneath a series of I-565 overpasses. Notable neighbors would include the Greyhound Bus station, the Huntsville Dog Spot and the Lydia Gold Skatepark. The area seemed constantly under construction.
Bank financing was already in place and a general contractor chosen in August of 2005, when Katrina hit the gulf coast, causing $108 billion in property damage and taking 1,833 lives. The Huntsville crew slated to begin construction on the café went to New Orleans to help with the recovery effort.
Even as projected costs effectively doubled, Cyn Shea was determined to forge ahead with construction.
“It would have been a lot easier to turn around and say, ‘Not now, we’ll wait.’ ”
But, she believed, her employees, her financial backers and the community needed a demonstration of her faith in the midst of crisis.
After all, Cyn Shea’s Café would be a division of Serving Hope Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization Cynthia founded to leverage Huntsville’s resources to help build marketable skills for work through offering training for food service. Serving Hope is at the root of every effort Cynthia undertakes. All revenue from Cyn Shea’s Café and Catering goes back into Serving Hope programs.
There are plenty of people who can’t cook and don’t care to learn, but who appreciate a quality dining experience. They fuel demand for skilled restaurant staff in Huntsville that is greater than the supply. That’s where Serving Hope, Inc. comes in.
Hope, Served With a Side of Education
As the ministry’s literature sets forth: “The Serving Hope goal is simple: To love well, instill hope and teach a new work skill set for long lasting employment in Huntsville’s fast-growing food and hospitality industry.”
“Food without hospitality is medicine,” goes an old adage. There are plenty of places in Huntsville to grab a quick injection of nutrition, but Serving Hope educates its participants to see the restaurant business as a calling beyond simply dispensing sustenance. Not surprisingly, this program recognizes the employee as a whole person, not a kitchen implement.
Serving Hope participants learn the farm-to-table experience from the ground up, with introductions to gardening and farming. They receive lessons in personal grooming and workplace etiquette and build potential business ties through volunteering. They also learn about finances, banking and money management.
Upon completion of the program, graduates are awarded ServSafe Certification and are prepared to take their place in “strong equality-based economic development for Huntsville.”
Serving Hope provides a pathway to prosperity and job satisfaction for people who need a second chance, or never got a first one. The one true predictor of success is “a servant heart.”
That servant’s heart was on Cyn Shea’s sleeve and bleeding buckets when she took on her most recent challenge, providing meals to the Boys and Girls Clubs of North Alabama.
An Urgent Appeal, A Firm Answer
Boys & Girls Club President/CPO Patrick Wynn approached Cyn Shea, proposing that Serving Hope bid on a contract: a thousand meals a day, delivered to 13 locations ranging from Decatur to Scottsboro, Ardmore to Priceville.
Cynthia had just turned 61, and she had been plotting her exit strategy from the constant stress of food service for some time, so her answer was an immediate and firm no.
Actually, her verbatim answer was, “You’ve got to be nuts. There is no way.”
“Can I just ask you to pray about it?” Patrick countered.
“No,” Cyn said. “I can tell you, I’m not even going to pray about this.”
She thanked Patrick for the honor of his offer, shook his hand, and turned back toward the kitchen. As she made the labyrinthine way back to her office, Cyn heard a clear phrase she believes was from God: “Moses was 80.”
In the moments following, Cynthia felt a calling and a blessing. She recalls feeling God’s assurance: “You can do this, because I am going to equip you to do this for these thousand kids.”
Over the summer of 2019, Cyn volunteered with a local Boys and Girls Club to scout the meals the kids were receiving. The vendor drove them up from central Alabama every day, which did no favors for their quality, but there were endless other problems, as well. They were supplying meals in over 13 states, doing everything on the cheap and pocketing as much as possible.
The quality was so appalling, Cyn took pictures. In one, a styrofoam cup holds a thin slice of off-pink tomato, plopped atop a glob of green slime — Iceberg lettuce that had frozen and thawed.
Of twenty deliveries in one month, eight were baloney sandwiches. These were made by cutting a baloney slice into four pieces, then applying two fragments to a hamburger bun. Cyn noticed that the buns were of different shapes and sizes — surplus, day-old bread from several different suppliers.
“It pierced my heart,” Cyn said. “These people don’t care one thing about the kids that they are feeding.”
The task would be a daunting one — the contract alone was 76 pages long. But she took it on.
She would bring healthful, wholesome meals to kids who usually got junk. She would be demonstrating the value of hospitality, and, in a tangible way, she would be sharing the gift of God’s love for all of creation.
Cyn’s standards seemed simple, but they were far beyond what the kids had come to expect. The vehicles delivering the meals would be clean. Drivers would not smoke; delivery people would “understand that they were presenting themselves to a thousand children, and they had the opportunity to serve them well — not just serve them, but serve them well.”
To accomplish her goals, Cyn Shea has built upon positive relationships with farmers, grocers and suppliers who know her reputation and value what she is doing. Once a week, for example, the local farm food collaborative supplies a list of produce that is ready for harvest, to be delivered fresh from the fields.
There has been a steep learning curve. In the first week of the contract, Serving Hope paid over 170 hours of overtime, and Cyn Shea was running close to 24 hours by herself.
“The second week was better,” she said, and three weeks into the contract, there were still some “pretty heavy bumps” in the road. But it’s all been worth it. What Serving Hope is doing for Boys and Girls Clubs borders on the heroic.
“They’ve never, EVER had a homemade meal. So (we’re) introducing them to color and shape and form and style and texture. Tomorrow, they’re going to have a little hard boiled egg stackable salad, and we’re going to try raspberry dressing.”
If she had any doubts that her labors would be appreciated, they were soon put to rest.
“Tears would well up in these leaders’ eyes when they talk to you about the difference. All of a sudden, it dawns on them. They’re astounded at how much food we’re delivering. … And you watch these leaders wrap their heads around, ‘This is what we were supposed to be getting all along?’ ”
It’s nothing extravagant, Cyn said.
“These menus? I’m providing what I’ve been asked to do, and what I’ve been paid to deliver.”
Hugs of gratitude and tears of joy are not a common dividend in the food service industry, but when you also advocate for service, style, authenticity and quality, the rewards are bountiful. Kids who dine at north Alabama Boys and Girls Clubs say, “It’s like Christmas every day! What’s coming today?”
Cynthia reports the stackable salad has already become a favorite, but tastes don’t change overnight. Not everything can be an instant hit.
“I got some curled noses to the raspberry dressing. I know it’s not ranch dressing, but I think you’re going to like it, if you just give it a chance.”
Cyn Shea’s not just serving hope for better food. She’s serving hope for better futures.