On a bustling Friday morning in downtown Raleigh, an employee at Carroll’s Kitchen hurries to unload the tray of kolaches in her arms into the display case. The lunch rush will start soon, and the kolaches, a signature dish, are popular. The Czech pastry rolls, made of sweet yeast dough, are dressed with a variety of creamy, gooey, and savory fillings—bacon and herbed cream cheese, coconut cream and coconut flakes, ground sausage with jalapeños.

To passersby, this Martin Street spot might seem like a typical cafe, a place to grab avocado toast for brunch or a tuna melt for lunch. But something different is happening here, something hinted at in the cafe’s tagline: “More than just a meal.” 

Opened in 2016, the nonprofit Carroll’s Kitchen—named for a family who started a soup kitchen during the Spanish influenza outbreak—doesn’t just serve food. It also employs women recovering from crisis. Some were recently incarcerated; others are coming out of abusive relationships. The goal is to not only give them the job they need to get back on their feet but also to provide a support network that will allow them to grow and thrive through life-skills training and housing that “empowers women … to live like all things are possible,” according to the mission statement the organization provides on tax documents.

Now in its third year, Carroll’s Kitchen has hit its stride. It’s expanded to two locations: the original Martin Street cafe and a stall at the Morgan Street Food Hall. It also caters for company and community events. There are now ten women in the program, of varying ages, ethnicities, and circumstances. All are referred to Carroll’s Kitchen through partner organizations, and most are in subsidized housing. 

They start at $9 an hour and receive help applying for college and jobs after they leave the program, which involves regular check-ins with program director Sara Acosta and executive director Lindsey Blankenhorn to talk about steps they are taking toward their goals. Some women have been in the program for over a year, while others have just finished their trial period. 

Most important, they have a safe, supportive place to go every day.

Jim Freeze and Vicky Ismail started the cafe after meeting at Vintage Church in 2016. They found a common purpose in social enterprise, the idea that people can be helped in sustainable and sustaining ways. Freeze was a former military platoon leader who believed in the empowerment of work. Ismail was a career restaurateur who had operated several restaurants in the Triangle, including The Cary Cafe. Both volunteered at the Rescue Mission and saw that a lot of women were in need of employment.

The concept was simple: give a woman in crisis a job, change her life. 

The reality was much more complicated. 

“Staffing and management was challenging,” says Blankenhorn. “When we first started, there were lots and lots of people who needed jobs and stability. We were finding that folks needed the jobs but were not stable otherwise when they got here. So we started thinking about what would create stability for our employees.”

At first, they worried about women dropping out of the program. Women in crisis face hurdles others don’t: They might lack secure housing or access to reliable transportation, or have regular court dates or visitations with children that require time away from work. They might also struggle with health issues exacerbated by a lack of affordable health care. 

Carroll’s Kitchen quickly discovered that these women didn’t just need work; they needed a network. 

The nonprofit changed its approach, developing relationships with other organizations in the area that support women in crisis, including Step Up Ministries, Raleigh Rescue Mission, and Grace Home. It decided to work with women who were already affiliated with one of these programs so that the women would already come with some support. 

“Normal for our girls might be living with ten other people in a house or not being able to drive because of excessive fines,” Blankenhorn says. “Our goal is to give them a new normal that can include independent housing, or having a driver’s license, or going to school.”

In other words, the nonprofit wants to break entrenched cycles of poverty and abuse. 

Another part of that new normal is showing them what a supportive community feels like. There’s a friendly camaraderie in the kitchen between chef Ryan Piper, the women, and the social services staffers who regularly hang around the cafe.

Piper came from the fine dining world where kitchens are known for strict hierarchies. But he wanted this environment to be the complete opposite—to be educational and helpful. 

“In this kitchen, we try to create a culture that’s positive, that’s trusting, that’s uplifting,” Piper says. “Because the girls have already been through enough. It’s important that they feel safe here.” 

He developed a menu accessible to someone new to food service, featuring sandwiches, soups, salads, quiches, and baked goods. The foods might be basic, but they’re delicious. This is important, because Carroll’s Kitchen wants to succeed as a cafe, too. And in the bustle of downtown, it has to stand out against its nearby competitors, including Sosta Cafe and The Morning Times. 

The more successful the cafe is, the more women it can employ. 

A woman named Decola, who lives in a transitional home and recently joined the program, used to work in fast food and banquets but is new to cooking the meals herself. When she heard about an opportunity at Carroll’s Kitchen through Grace Home, she jumped at the chance.

“Learning about recipes and learning how to cook is the best part, because I’m not the best cook,” she says. “The first thing I learned was how to wrap, because I never really made burritos. Then I learned how to make kolaches—first, how to fill them, then how to make the dough.” 

Decola wants to study to become a health inspector. She’s been looking at programs at N.C. State. The program at Carroll’s Kitchen, she says, has helped her start to visualize those goals. 

“When you try to go out in the world after recovering from crisis, people don’t necessarily want you as part of your world,” says Marie, another woman in the program who asked to be identified by a pseudonym. “When I joined Carroll’s Kitchen, I found a hardworking, dedicated group of down-to-earth, non-judgmental people. There’s such a team atmosphere here. Here they value you for where you are now, not where you came from.”