Courtesy of Marcus Harvin

On Monday, two hours before the fREsh-taurant — Newhallville fREshSTARTs’ new community kitchen — was set to open its doors for the second time, the New Haven Health Department called fREshSTARTs’ Founder and President Marcus Harvin to inform him that the fREsh-taurant couldn’t operate until it had obtained a food service license.

The fREsh-taurant, which had its launch event last Friday, repurposes excess dining hall food from Southern Connecticut State University, the University of New Haven and Yale — delivered through the University’s partnership with New Haven food recovery nonprofit Haven’s Harvest — and serves it restaurant-style to Newhallville residents who are experiencing food insecurity. After the fREshSTARTs organizers were told that they couldn’t serve the food they had prepared for Monday night, they donated it to a homeless shelter and a warming center.

“I have been reaching out to everyone I know who knows anyone with the ability to rectify [this], and I believe we will expeditiously have a solution,” Harvin wrote to the News. “We will be serving our people within the next few days… in a manner that is dignified and legal.”

The process of obtaining a food service license can take between “a few days to a week or two,” depending on the necessary departments’ availability, according to the city health department’s Health Director Maritza Bond.

Food service operators must fill out an application for the license through CitySquared, the Health Department’s online portal. This notifies other City departments to conduct “inspections and approvals” of the restaurant or nonprofit. Afterward, the Health Department assigns each food service operator a sanitarian to assist them with the licensing steps, which include “reviewing” their floor plan and kitchen equipment.

“We appreciate all fREsh-taurant is doing to offer hot meals to people in need in the community, and we look forward to supporting them in their food service license application process,” Bond wrote to the News. 

Prior to receiving the Health Department’s notice, the fREsh-taurant held a launch event last Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. in the fellowship hall of Pitts Chapel Unified Free Will Baptist Church. 

At this first event, fREsh-taurant volunteers greeted diners at the door with socks, underwear, T-shirts, diapers and baby wipes, encouraging them to take any supplies they need. Diners then had the choice to be served their dinner or grab their meal to-go.

Those who opted to dine-in had limited time to finish their meal in order to “regulate flows when it starts to get packed,” per Harvin. Each table had a 20 minute timer set by the server once the diner sat down.

“You treat them like they have the most expensive bill at a restaurant you’ve ever seen,” Harvin said, recalling his advice to the volunteers prior to the event. “When someone spends their money, you’re going to respect them, right? So, their currency is the oxygen in their lungs … You’ve got to treat people with dignity, you’ve got to treat them with honor.”

At last Friday’s event, there was a turnout of about a dozen diners, according to fREshSTARTs Vice President Adam Rawlings. 

UNH’s Campus Executive Chef Peter Marrello, who brought 50 pounds of excess dining hall food to the event and led volunteers in reheating and preparing the food, said he had expected a greater number of diners because of Harvin’s strong presence in Newhallville.

“[Harvin] has a very powerful speaking voice,” Marrello said. “People seem to listen when he talks.” 

Despite the attendance being lower than Rawlings had hoped, he said it was a “really good opening night” and that he expects turnout to increase once the fREsh-taurant secures a food service license.

Stephanie Harvin — the mother of Marcus Harvin and a member of the fREshSTARTs board — noted that eligible Connecticut residents receive their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which were formerly known as food stamps, during the first three days of each month. Since the fREsh-taurant launch event was held on Feb. 2, she said she anticipates that more community members will attend in the coming weeks.

Because of the lower than expected turnout, fREshSTARTs had some extra food at the end of their first event which they donated to a nearby warming center. Nonetheless, Harvin emphasized his sense of accomplishment regarding the event.

“If I helped one person along the way, my life wasn’t in vain,” Harvin said. “One person fed is a success. One person coming to help out is a success.”

In addition to diners and volunteers, representatives of clean energy company Avangrid, which recently partnered with fREshSTARTs, had a table set up at the event to teach community members how to lower their utility bills.

Other attendees included the Yale Prison Education Initiative Founding Director Zelda Roland ’08 GRD ’16, Ward 19 Alder Kimberly Edwards and Stephen Cremin-Endes, the director of community building and organizing at Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven. Currently, fREshSTARTs is only partnered with Avangrid, however, Harvin said he hopes to form collaborations with other local businesses in the future and expects “more people to want to join forces with us after this [event].”

Harvin, Rawlings and the fREshSTARTs organizers began planning the fREsh-taurant’s launch event three weeks prior as soon as they solidified Feb. 2 as the date.

During the weeks leading up to the event, fREshSTARTs secured partnerships with UNH, SCSU and Haven’s Harvest, who will assist in food delivery. 

Though the organization had been permitted to hold its launch event at Pitts Chapel, Harvin also had to request approval to host the fREsh-taurant at that location on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m. On Jan. 26, Harvin, who is a member of the church, presented his plan at Pitts Chapel’s semiannual meeting and received their formal approval to host the fREsh-taurant there once they’ve obtained their food service license.

The nonprofit has raised about $3,000 through grassroots fundraising, mainly from donations from members of Pitts Chapel, according to Harvin. Most of the funds were spent on stockpiling supplies for the launch event: both the essential ones which are offered to diners at the door and decorative items such as centerpieces, colorful tablecloths and electric candles, which add to the fREsh-taurant’s restaurant atmosphere.

Leading up to their event, organizers at fREshSTARTs also tried to attract volunteers by reaching out to the Newhallville community. Over two dozen volunteers worked at Friday’s event.

“Right away, I wanted to get on board because I wanted to volunteer to help those that are less fortunate than I am,” Elder Rachel Richardson, a member of the church and volunteer at Friday’s event, said. “This is what the Bible tells us anyway: we are to feed those that are in misfortune.”

As a server at the event, Richardson planned on having one-on-one conversations with the diners and letting them know about Pitts Chapel’s resources, such as spiritual counseling services.

Harvin has many long term goals for the fREsh-taurant’s future, such as ultimately securing their own space. Despite the challenges that the nonprofit has faced so far, he is confident that it will be able to accomplish these goals.

“The hardest thing was getting out of prison,” Harvin, who is formerly incarcerated, said. “We got the hard part out of the way: that was those bars that were in front of us, that was those chains that were on our wrists [and] on our ankles. Now, it’s going to be smooth sailing, because I’m just literally putting it all in the provider’s hands.” 

Pitts Chapel Unified Free Will Baptist Church is located at 64 Brewster St.

Maia Nehme covers housing and homelessness and Latine communities for the News. Originally from Washington, D.C., she is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in history.