Catering company is job training for recovering substance abusers

Meals that included chicken Caesar salad were plated and ready to serve to 185 luncheon guests on Thursday.
Meals that included chicken Caesar salad were plated and ready to serve to 185 luncheon guests on Thursday. Herald-Leader

The menu was summery, chic — fresh fruit, chicken Caesar salad — but the meal was made possible by what Sheila Taluskie likes to call "catering with a cause."

Amid the hubbub as servers in crisp, white shirts and black aprons perfected place settings for 185 guests, Taluskie explained that the catering company at work, The Purple Lunchbox, provides more than just good food.

It provides opportunity.

The Purple Lunchbox was created about three years ago as real-life job training for women who are going through substance-abuse treatment at Chrysalis House, the Lexington-based non-profit that helped 200 women and their children last year.

On Thursday, The Purple Lunchbox was serving the midday meal in honor of Mother's Day during a program honoring Chrysalis House supporters. About 33 percent of the women entering treatment at Chrysalis House are pregnant and will deliver while in the program, said executive director Lisa Minton.

Before the luncheon Taluskie, job readiness coordinator for Chrysalis House, was running the room, ordering that the water glasses be filled just so, making sure the rolls weren't put out so early they would get dry. But, she said, the real work is done by the women who come to the catering service after taking job-training courses as part of their substance-abuse treatment. Some, like the white-shirted servers, volunteer to help the cause while gaining some on-the-job experiences. Others, like the crew in the kitchen, are among the small paid staff.

The kitchen team creates the menus, tries out new recipes, takes the orders and does the shopping.

"This is really something that they can do from the ground up," she said.

Taluskie — who also runs God's Closet, a non-profit that provides work-appropriate clothing to women getting back on their feet — had long talked about creating this kind of sustainable enterprise, Minton said.

Now, she said, "they cater all over town."

Because the women working as servers for The Purple Lunchbox are in treatment, it is the Chrysalis House's policy not to identify them by name.

Using the Chrysalis House community center's kitchen as a base, The Purple Lunchbox offers wraps and sub sandwiches for lunch; for dinner, there are appetizers such as baked brie or stuffed mushrooms, and entrees like chicken Milano pasta served with blue cheese apple salad.

The Purple Lunchbox, she said, offers "the best quality food as fresh as we can make it." And that means sometimes thinking outside of the lunch box.

"Actually," said Taluskie, "people ask us for something and we try to do it."

It's good for the community — quality food at affordable prices — and the women at Chrysalis House. Finding a job can be difficult for women while they are in treatment and when they get out, said Chrysalis House board member Lisa Hamilton. Some haven't worked in a long time or might not have much of a job history, she said.

"The Purple Lunchbox allows them to create an income with dignity," she said.

This weekend that means having to work "Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday," when catering jobs are booked, said Taluskie, who added that one of her toughest jobs is letting people know that The Purple Lunchbox is not affiliated with the Lexington diner The Lunch Box.

She hopes people will tell their friends once they've had The Purple Lunchbox experience.

She said, "We are all about word of mouth."

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