Café founder extends chance to ‘at risk’

WASHINGTON(Catholic Online) – New Orleans native Craig Cuccia, a self-described “learner-by-doer,” has worked as a general contractor, in the oil fields, and in hotel and restaurant industry. Yet, for the last nine years, Cuccia has brought his diverse and extensive experience to visionary work to train and employ at-risk teens and young adults in the hospitality industry of the Crescent City. For that work, he has been named the winner of the 2006 Sister Margaret Cafferty Development of People Award by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to a CCHD statement of Feb. 9.

He was to be presented the national award here Feb. 12 at the annual Combined Social Ministry Meeting. However, he was unable to reach Washington Feb. 12 to accept the award because of flight delays caused by a weekend snowstorm. Cuccia’s sister and brother, Jewell Falcon and Louis Cuccia, who had arrived before the storm, accepted the award on his behalf.

Cuccia is the co-founder and executive director of Café Reconcile, a restaurant in the Central City neighborhood. It provides practical, on-the-job training, experience and life skills to local hospitality school students and other residents and helps them to develop expertise in restaurant service and management.

“There’s been a real evolution on this corner,” says Mr. Cuccia. “We have this idea that you can do something different and better here and not always be exposed to the illegal element of drugs and prostitution that was here when we started.”

Café Reconcile, which began in 1997 as a modest candy shop in a renovated corner of a derelict building, has been recognized as one of the city’s top 10 soul-food restaurants, with no meal priced greater than $8 (USD).

In the mid-1990s, Cuccia became involved in ministry through his spiritual director, late Jesuit Father Harry Tompson, and helped him open a center for homeless people. They bought the building that is home to Café Reconcile in 1997 and began to develop it as a cooperative project of the Learning for a Sustainable Future Foundation and the St. John Francis Regis Hospitality School.

The present Café Reconcile operation opened in 2000 and more than 250 young people have completed the training program. Many have moved on to careers in the city’s top restaurants and there are now 10 full-time neighborhood employees at the operation.

Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding did not devastate the Central City neighborhood to the same extent as some other areas of New Orleans. Café Reconcile reopened less than two months after the hurricane.

Nonetheless, the wind and water have provided both challenges and opportunities for Cuccia and the people of Café Reconcile. Central City has become a newly desirable location and Cuccia is working with a church group to develop affordable housing so that the low-income people who live in the neighborhood will be able to stay as the area gentrifies. He has also expanded the focus of his program to train young adults for the construction jobs that are now abundant throughout the city.

Cuccia is also increasing Café Reconcile’s catering operation, developing a family-learning center and working on the model for a “business incubator” to bring new jobs to the area. He downplays his role in the revival of the neighborhood saying, “I’m like the guy who gets to carry the torch over the finish line after everyone else has done the hard running.”

Cuccia was nominated for the Development of People Award by Tom Costanza, CCHD director for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

“Craig is a visionary who has been able to bring people together to develop themselves and the community in an area that was historically self-interested. He is able to get people moving in a collaborative way,” Costanza said. “One of Craig’s great strengths is his ability to reach out to all strata of society and convince those with more to not only donate money, but come to the area and meet the residents, get involved and be in solidarity. Café Reconcile has become a power lunch place.”

The Sister Margaret Cafferty Development of People Award, named in memory of the late Presentation sister who served as executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and a member of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee for CCHD, honors an individual whose life exemplifies a commitment to the development of people and the elimination of poverty. Recipients of this award, establishing in 1987, have made significant contributions to human development and have offered heroic responses to the needs of the economically disadvantaged.

“Craig Cuccia has used his considerable talents as a contractor and a man of faith to bring hope and optimism to a disenfranchised neighborhood,” said Tim Collins, CCHD executive director.

“It is likely that Café Reconcile and the Central City area will be a linchpin of the redevelopment of New Orleans – and that is due, in no small part, to Craig’s passionate involvement,” Collins said. “I am inspired by the way Craig attracts people of complementary talents to bring dignity and justice to a neighborhood that has been effectively forgotten since the 1950s.”

Cuccia is married to the former Lisa Lottinger of Luling and is the son-in-law of Herald-Guide Co-Publishers Allen and Colette Lottinger.


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