A West Point graduate leading a platoon of twenty-two young men finds himself in post-9/11 Iraq, seeking a solution to the violence unfolding around him. Jim Freeze has no idea that a meeting with a group of tribal elders will teach him a lesson he'll someday put to use back home.
"So I went into these villages and said, 'I'm here to help with security. What do you guys need?' They said, 'We need jobs. You know, these young men are engaging in violence because they don't have work,'" he says.
Fast-forward five years. Freeze, after two tours in the Middle East, has left the army and is working for a company that helps veterans gain employment. He feels like he's making a difference but still hasn't found his true calling. Then, a year and a half ago, a chance conversation with a fellow member of Vintage Church lights a fire inside of him that will, this week, result in the opening of a Raleigh restaurant dedicated to removing women from desperate situations and helping them reclaim their lives.
Vicky Ismail, a fifty-nine-year-old restaurateur who sold her most recent Triangle project, The Cary Café, in 2013, began crafting the idea of Carroll's Kitchen—the name derives from the church's dining hall—after reading a magazine article about Jim Noble and his Charlotte restaurant, The King's Kitchen, which employs at-risk youth, ex-cons, and recovering addicts, and donates its profits to charities that feed the hungry. "My career is kind of done," Ismail says. "I don't need money and stuff like that. But I do still love to be in the kitchen. So I started thinking, 'Why not do it for someone else, instead of just for profit?'"
But she needed a partner.
"She shared the dream with me," Freeze says. "I had been, for a few years, going around thinking, 'What does sustainable help look like?' I mean, people generally want to do good and help people from tough circumstances, but what does that really mean? So when she threw that out there, like, 'Hey, let's open a restaurant and hire people coming from difficult circumstances,' I'm like, 'I want in.'"
He quit his job and got to work. And after a "serendipitous" series of events led them to the downtown Raleigh space vacated by The Square Rabbit—Freeze was introduced to an employee of LM Restaurants, which owned the then-vacant former home of The Square Rabbit, and told her that Carroll's Kitchen needed a home; she, in turn, offered him the restaurant's current location—he and Ismail were on their way.
They reached out to homeless shelters, the Raleigh Rescue Mission, and the Salvation Army. They sought out victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. These, they thought, would be the women who would roast the meat for locally sourced chicken salad sandwiches and craft homemade condiments and jam. In return, they would earn an honest living—a few dollars more per hour than minimum wage—have a room to rent in a group home run in conjunction with the Raleigh-based nonprofit Families Together, and learn skills that will help them in the future.
"You know, these women, they come from difficult situations. They need something to get back on their feet. A lot of businesses don't want to take that risk," Freeze says. "Just being able to say, 'They believe in me' is a huge thing for these women."
It's not just their new bosses who believe in them. The community, through the business's Kickstarter campaign, has shown its support, too—with $150,000, of which $50,000 came from Square 1 Bank.
"The six months that Vicky and I were sitting around together dreaming about this, it got to a point where it was like, 'OK. Who's gonna do this?' Well, I couldn't not do it. I knew that at some point in my life, I would look back and regret not being a part of making this thing happen," Freeze says.
Carroll's Kitchen opens its doors September 15; what the future holds remains uncertain. Will the restaurant start a movement in Raleigh—and beyond? Will the women who work to ensure its success find their own victories in the years to come?
Ismail isn't ready to rule anything out.
"Dream big," she says. "You should never accomplish, in your lifetime, what you can dream. Otherwise, you've got pretty small dreams."
This article appeared in print with the headline "'What Does Sustainable Help Look Like?'"