• Sara Moinian

Hudson Valley Feast: Flipping the Dishes at Earth, Wind and Fuego

by Amy Lynn Tompkins

It started when Jen Herman and Madeline Henriquez began meal-prepping for themselves as a necessary lifestyle change. That turned into a side hustle, meal-prepping for others while they were each pursuing master’s degrees in social work. Then the partners realized there was a way to make their a business and bring their healthier habits to larger audience. Earth, Wind and Fuego was born.

“I was having some health issues. So was my partner – and I sort of realized my diet was really affecting my mental and physical health,” Herman explained. “It took me about six months to realize I wasn’t on a diet. I was changing my lifestyle. When you’re on a diet, you have cheat days, but that was making me sick.”

Herman and Henriquez, courtesy Earthwindfuego.com

The City of Poughkeepsie has also been experiencing big changes, particularly near the waterfront. Gentrification has raised rents in those neighborhoods. Small restaurants which previously served the diverse local community have been replaced by often-overpriced establishments whose target markets are upper middle-class tourists and commuters.

Before pulling into the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory (PUF) parking lot, away from the worst examples of gentrified living, it’s apparent something different is at work.

The building sits just off Main Street in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it block that, despite being in the heart of the city, was known by locals as a place where you lock your car if you’re stuck at the red light.

Now, that block looks cleaner, cared for but not out of place.

Once inside the PUF, turn left and you’ll see the Poughkeepsie Open Kitchen, an initiative by Hudson River Housing which owns the building and serves the community as a not-for-profit. This is where Earth, Wind and Fuego has served lunch five days a week since 2017.

While Earth, Wind and Fuego is not operating, the kitchen is open to the public for a nominal fee and is used by local chefs and nonprofits. For many, it’s an affordable alternative to buying a commercial kitchen. Shared office spaces and conference rooms are also available for per diem rental.

The walls in this space are exposed brick. Comfortable armchairs and couches are strategically placed in the corners, creating cozy nooks. Most of the tables are antique Singer sewing machine stands, a subtle homage to the building’s original purpose.

As a for-profit business, Earth, Wind and Fuego is under no obligation to serve the community – at least not in the way it is. However, Herman and Henriquez are committed to a mission-based model that supports the neighborhood on both macro- and micro-levels.

This is their mission statement:

Earth, Wind & Fuego is a social enterprise radicalizing hiring, training and workplace culture to create sustainable solutions to poverty through inclusive training and employment opportunities. As a social enterprise, we seek, build and sustain opportunities. We envision a community where everyone is able to live out their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and share their #POUGHTENTIAL with the world.

A key way the enterprise is supporting its community is, according to its web site, training and hiring community members who face physical, mental, and societal barriers. People who are hired under this umbrella undergo a comprehensive training program, from which they graduate with the emotional and technical skills appropriate to their goals.

With Herman baking and Henriquez doing most of the cooking, Fuego’s business model rejects the traditional kitchen hierarchy and consciously avoids reinforcing stereotypes rampant across the restaurant industry.

“There’s definitely some stereotypes. The Head Chef who is usually a white man in charge, the woman (usually white) in the front-of-house and the (usually undocumented) people of color in back-of-house jobs like dishwashing,” they explained. “Here, we all wash the dishes. We all work with the customers. We all wear the same shirt.”

“We’re really working to flip the script,” Herman said. “We’ll also work with someone if they’re really uncomfortable doing certain things. We had one guy who had spent some time in prison and he really didn’t want to interact with customers, so we accommodated and worked with him to step out of his comfort zone. Today he’s an entrepreneur and works in the communications field.”

Organic Matcha Latte, courtesy Earthwindfuego.com

They continued to say that everyone is paid above minimum wage, even though staff do also receive tips, because, as business owners, the partners believe it’s important the staff feels valued. According to Herman, access to services like the Employment Assistance Program (EAP), which is available through their partnership with Hudson River Housing, provides added value.

As social workers, they and their partner learned that workplace relationships often reflect familial patterns. This means that a person may be interacting with their boss but also, for example, be transferring negative feelings about a parent into that interaction.

“We try to model healthy behaviors. We’re all human, so we all mess up. When [my partner or I] do, we make sure we apologize and talk about what happened,” Herman explained.

Herman further acknowledged that restaurants can be a traumatic environment unto itself. Working with the public, micro-managing your time and making sure everything that lands on a plate is not only edible, but delicious and beautiful, can be a lot to handle. For a person who has experienced trauma, it may be even more difficult.

As a trauma-informed workplace, Earth, Wind and Fuego recognizes and responds to the impact of trauma on mental health and physical well-being.

“When I was working as a social worker, I heard that the environment in a lot of [restaurants] is toxic,” Herman said. That’s why the staff meets regularly to talk about coping mechanisms and everyone is encouraged to check in with each other, even if it’s just to make sure they’re all drinking enough water during their shifts.

New students are guided in making clear goals for themselves, both short-term and long-term, from the very beginning of their program, so they’re working toward a tangible outcome and can track their own progress. Employees are also encouraged to mentor each other.

“We focus on representation,” Herman said. “Those who are a year into the program can see how far they’ve come by working with people who are just starting and new participants can see, if they do the work, what they might achieve.”

The support system is not the only thing that makes this restaurant unique.

I learned there’s a difference between feeling comfortable and feeling safe. We want a space that does both Jen Herman

It’s worth noting that Herman still considers themself a social worker, “It’s been two years and it only just occurred to me that, I guess technically, I’m a chef because I am doing that work. But, no, I’m a social worker. This really is social work that we’re doing here.”

The business exclusively employs people from the local community, hiring via partnerships with ARC of Dutchess and Hudson River Housing and welcomes everyone. Even if you don’t buy anything. Even if you don’t have any money.

“One guy came in the other day and just rested on the couch,” Herman said. “It’s important that everyone, no matter who they are, knows they will be welcomed with a smile.”

Part of the mission, revitalization without gentrification, is to create a space where people who actually live in the neighborhood are comfortable. A pay-it-forward board allows patrons to put money on a card that someone else can use to buy whatever they want.

Banana Muffins, courtesy Earthwindfuego.com

“While I was working with domestic violence survivors, I learned there’s a difference between feeling comfortable and feeling safe. We want a space that does both,” Herman said.

The pair’s conscious efforts to create an inclusive environment don’t end with the obvious. Fuego’s holiday menu offers a wide array of comfort food, available to order for your home dinner needs, without any of the “traditional” offerings that, according to Herman, are associated with the erasure of indigenous peoples or people of color.

Along with an array of appetizers and side dishes, Chicken, lasagna and “Latin-sagna” (sweet plantain layers) are available as family-size entrees. Sofrito and Fuego Sauce are available a la carte.

“It’s partly because my partner is a second-generation Dominican-American, so a lot of the food we make is from her heritage,” Herman said. “But we also want our food to reflect the community that we serve.”

In the two years the business has been operating (they celebrated their anniversary on Oct. 4), five students have graduated from the training program, three of whom were hired by Earth, Wind and Fuego. Along with having catered 154 events during the past two years, the restaurant recently partnered with Hudson River Housing for the Teen Business Lab.

In September, the restaurant received the 2019 Award for Business Excellence for Small Business from Think Dutchess Alliance for Business and in October it received a service award from the Esperanza Dutchess County Hispanic Heritage Committee.

On the first Friday of every month, the restaurant hosts an open mic night. It’s called Fiesta Friday. “People perform poetry. Manny, [a graduate from the program who trained as a barista and is now a full-time team member], plays the guitar. One time we had a violinist. We tend to have a lot of people from the LGBTQ community,” Herman said. “It’s a relaxed environment where people are encouraged to be themselves.”

The next Fiesta Friday is December 1, 7-10 p.m. at the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory, located at 8 N. Cherry St., Poughkeepsie, NY 12601.

For more information about Earth, Wind and Fuego, you can visit their Facebook page or their Web site. For more information about the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory (including the Poughkeepsie Open Kitchen) or Hudson River Housing you may visit hudsonriverhousing.org.

Each month, The Teller will be featuring a new Hudson Valley food or wine destination as part of this series. Have a suggestion? Let us know.


A version of this originally appeared in “Comfort” The Teller November 2019 Issue #8


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