ELIZABETH, NJ – George Vlahos, owner of Urban Griddle, looked out at the class seated in front of him and explained, “I want to give you a skill set so you will enjoy what you are doing, so when you walk into a restaurant, you get the job.”  

The occasion was the first class of the Restaurant Academy on February 1, a collaboration between the Urban Griddle and United Youth of NJ. The goal of the class is to prepare the students for careers in the restaurant business. Vlahos told the group, “Restaurants aren’t looking for people for entry level. We are looking people who can become managers, for people who can multi-task. I want somebody who is passionate about our business, who is going to be committed, who is going to be able to move the industry forward.”

The class will teach these students something about all parts of the restaurant business, from cooking, bartending, to serving. “You are going to learn a lot about different aspects of the business. Pick one thing and do it the best you can.”

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The impetus for the school began when Vlahos came back to Elizabeth to open Urban Griddle. “I had been away for a while, and I saw these lines in front of the welfare office on Elizabeth Avenue. I thought there is a lack of good people in the restaurant business, and here there are people out of work. I decided I wanted to teach people my craft.”

Although Vlahos learned his craft from his parents who owned the Olympia Diner once located on the same site as the Urban Griddle at 460 Maple Avenue, he didn’t know how to start a school. For that, he turned to Charlotte Brown at the United Youth of NJ. “She knows how to get things done,” said Vlahos. “The next thing I knew there was a grant writer here.”

Brown, whose non-profit works extensively with children, saw the need to work with the whole family. Many of those parents were out of work. “We saw the need for training and helping to write resumes,” said Brown who attended the first class with her board member Latysha Gaines. Together, they screened the applicants, and Gaines uses her professional skills to help with resume writing.

For the students, the reasons for taking the class vary. A few were looking for a career change, while others wanted to improve their skills. “You can never stop learning,” said George Rosado, a former waiter who would like to get back into the business. “It is better to have more knowledge that you can pass on to your children. The world is always changing, and you have to keep up.”

It’s a passion for Tia Sudler, who started out working in the fast food industry. “I love it,” she said. “People thought I was crazy, but I found I really had a passion for it. If you ever had a birthday party at a restaurant, you remember it, that someone made you a Shirley Temple with 10 cherries. You had an experience. I want to be part of that experience."