Choosing a place to enjoy a meal in Annapolis can be a daunting task — there are so many fine options to select from. One of the newer establishments, having arrived on the scene this past February, is the 50-seat Light House Bistro, located at 202 West Street, which also is home to B.E.S.T. Catering.
Guests can dine on the Bistro’s seasonal roast squash bisque; a pulled chicken B.E.S.T.wich; a crab cake with fried green tomatoes; cauliflower “mac” and cheese; or braised pork or seared salmon with caramelized shallots, leeks and fennel, haricot verts, herbed quinoa and avocado butter, to name some of the many options.
Light House Bistro and B.E.S.T. Catering Executive Chef Beth Rocca brings 25 years of culinary experience in the preparation of fine foods. A graduate of the L’Academie de Cuisine Culinary Arts Program, she worked as an executive chef, and later as the food and beverage director, at Loews Hotel in Annapolis, and recently spent three years teaching culinary classes at Sur La Table in Carlsbad, Ca.
But dining at Light House Bistro is a value-added proposition: Customers not only enjoy fine food in the state capital’s arts and entertainment district, they support a social enterprise effort to provide living-wage employment to individuals experiencing homelessness.
Owned and operated by the Light House Homeless Prevention Support Center and located in the center’s repurposed one-time home, Light House Bistro houses an Advanced Culinary Training Center with a full teaching kitchen and real-work opportunities for graduates of the Light House’s culinary arts job training program — Building Employment Success Training (B.E.S.T.). More than 250 students have graduated from the program since its 2012 launch.
The kitchen, located in the newly created basement of the building, offers custom catering, lunch contracts, prepared meals and signature items. The second floor features four new apartments for former Light House Shelter residents.
Elizabeth Kinney, president of the Light House Social Enterprise LLC board, said the organization’s mission is training. “You can’t have sustainable housing without sustainable employment. Our goal is to increase our clients’ income by increasing their opportunities for promotions. The greater the skill, the greater the income.”
Adding to the marketability of the culinary graduates is the fact that they’ve already received the ServSafe certification. And the majority of the Bistro’s front-of-the-house employees continue on to get their alcohol awareness certification through the TIPS (training for intervention procedures) program.
Future Bistro employees participate in a 14-week B.E.S.T. training program at Light House’s 10 Hudson Street headquarters. Kinney said about 30% of students enrolled in the B.E.S.T. program are Light House residents.
Lakesha has been employed at Light House Bistro as a sauté cook since she graduated from the B.E.S.T. Program in April 2017.
The previous fall, Lakesha and her 3-year-old daughter arrived at the Light House Homeless Prevention Support Center as survivors of domestic abuse. Living at the shelter provided her with a safe space to get back on her feet. She was able to apply for daycare assistance for her daughter, start working again, save some money, learn budgeting skills and start the process of finding affordable housing.
When she learned about the B.E.S.T. Culinary Program, and that the Bistro would be opening, Lakesha was excited.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 15. I love cooking … it’s my passion. My grandmother, my aunt and my uncle all had their own restaurants, so when I was growing up I was learning from them and working in kitchens most of my life.”
Lakesha worked hard to pass her ServSafe certification exam. She was awarded the B.E.S.T. Outstanding Student Star Award by her instructors, and the Bistro hired her the day she graduated.
“I’ve learned so many skills since I started the B.E.S.T. Program. Even though I had been cooking most of my life, Chef Beth, and my B.E.S.T. instructor, Chef Linda, have taught me so much more. I’ve learned a lot about different styles of cooking, how to get flavors to compliment each other, and how to make something incredible out of any ingredients on hand.”
Lakesha now has a full-time job, steady housing and the promise of a bright future. She is proud that she can provide for her daughter and said her ultimate goal is to be able to send her daughter to college and teach her to work hard.
In keeping with The Light House’s mission of reclaiming lives, the interior of the building uses fixtures and materials that are repurposed and reclaimed. The chairs were used by U.S. Naval Academy plebes in the 1950s. The pendulum lights are from an old Pepco plant in Baltimore. The bar stools, tables and waiting benches are handcrafted from reclaimed barn wood.
When builders gutted the 1889 building to create the restaurant, they salvaged floor joists that now serve as restaurant walls. A wall-length church pew came from St. Anne’s church on Church Circle, and harkens back to a time when St. Anne’s served as the shelter’s first home in 1988. The following year, Annapolis Area Ministries (composed of 13 different churches) purchased the 202 West Street location. In 2010, the organization changed its name to Light House.
The donated hostess stand is the original cash box from Bowen’s Farm Supplies in Annapolis, and the donated mirror behind the bar is made of old Venetian glass. Kinney said the restaurant is decorated with finds from antiques shops throughout Annapolis and Maryland.
Outside, the Light House’s story is captured in a 7-foot by 19-foot mural on the Madison Street side of the building. The work was funded by the nonprofit community public art project ArtWalk, whose mission is to bring grand scale art to the walls of exterior buildings in historic Annapolis.
As Kinney sees it, “It’s a community service that brings in individuals who are at risk, or who need a second skill set to help them get back to work. Our mission is jobs. We’re not in this to make a profit. We want our employees to make a living wage. Any additional revenues go back to Light House to fund our programs.”
Lakesha and other participants of the program are testimonial to its effectiveness. “Out of this whole experience, I was able to gain my independence,” she said. “I’m grateful to everyone who contributes and works with us to rebuild our lives and help us feel whole again.”