Garces Family Foundation’s English Language & Skills Program Takes Off in South Philly

By Judy Weightman |

Mallory Fix, a former runner at Garces Trading Co., started the program “English for the Restaurant and Everyday Living” with two other employees and help from the Garces Family Foundation. Here she is presenting a student with a certificate at a ceremony in July 2013. (Photo via The Garces Foundation)

Sometimes we grouse that we don’t speak the same language as our coworkers, but usually that’s metaphorical. In the hospitality industry, it is often literally true.

“There’s an enormous division in restaurant workers between those who speak English and those who don’t,” said Beatriz Garces, cofounder (with her husband, restaurateur José) and director of the Garces Family Foundation.

That division is clear for anyone who works in a restaurant, like Mallory Fix, who worked part-time as a runner at the Garces Trading Co. while studying TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Temple University.

“It was eye-opening,” she said. “I was taking what I was learning in the classroom — about how language breakdowns hinder relationships between the native-speaking and the non-native-speaking workforce; and about the importance of content-based learning — and observing it in action in the restaurant.”

She spent a year teaching in Mexico after getting her master’s degree, but upon returning to Philadelphia, she was ready to start breaking down the language barriers that many Hispanic restaurant workers face.

Fix recruited two other Garces employees who are involved in the catering operation at the Kimmel Center, executive chef Adam DeLosso and manager Nick Thomas. “The three of us sat down and came up with a plan,” which the Foundation was happy to let them implement.

“We want our hard-working employees to continue to excel, to move up in the organization,” Garces said. “In order to do that, they need to communicate efficiently,” which here in Philadelphia means being able to speak English.

In January of this year, Fix began a pilot program to teach both English and relevant job skills to Garces restaurant workers. That 16-week course went well, so the second course, which started in May, was opened to students from other restaurants; in June they moved from a small space in the Kimmel Center to their own location at 8th and Passyunk. This summer, they have 40 students enrolled in five different eight-week classes. The model is to keep classes small and group together students at similar skill levels.

“As funding grows, we’ll be able to serve more students,” Garces said. Students pay $40 — just $20 a month — for an eight-week course. That money helps with the rent on their new storefront space, plus the workbook they use in class, which they get to keep. The balance all comes from the foundation.

Skills are developed outside of the storefront classroom as well. Pictured here students learned about different types of beer brews at Amis.

Students attend two mandatory language classes a week. There’s also an optional third weekly session that covers job skills, such as sanitation, food safety, or knife skills. One week they tackled recipes — looking at measures (how many cups in a gallon?) and tricky abbreviations like “lb.” for pound, then baking and enjoying some cookies. Another week a beer tasting helped students develop vocabularies for talking to customers about the flavors of different brews, followed by a trip to Amis restaurant to talk about the bartender’s job.

“By experiencing these jobs [through class role-playing], students can imagine themselves in different positions, which makes them better able to set goals for themselves,” Fix said. “This will help them advance.”

Both Garces and Fix are looking forward to expanding the program. Fix is busy developing partnerships not just within the restaurant community but with higher education, including the hospitality program at Drexel University as well as her alma mater, the TESOL program at Temple. “Everyone I’ve talked to has been very open, very excited, and very helpful,” Fix said

That includes the volunteers who are teaching classes this summer. Two come from Temple, one from Comcast, and one is a freelance poet.

Want to join them? “You don’t need to speak Spanish — though it obviously helps,” Fix said. “We provide training and ongoing support for our teachers — all you need is passion and dedication.”

Find more information on their Facebook page here

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