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City diner serves course in success to teen-agers


It's half an hour before the lunchtime rush at the Hollywood Diner and already a dozen hungry customers fill the orange leatherette and silvery chrome booths.

Back in the kitchen, a quickly moving young cook grabs a pita pocket, slices it open and stuffs it with sliced Monterey Jack, alfalfa sprouts, lettuce and tomatoes.

With a whoosh of the swinging door, he is gone, carrying forth a Euell Gibbons sandwich (heavy on the sprouts) with a side order of chips.

To the customers, it's the same scene they've witnessed at breakfast and lunch for the past eight years, ever since the restaurant, which starred in the title role in the Barry Levinson movie "Diner," opened with great fanfare as the Kids' Diner in 1984.

But much more than the name has changed.

Though the teen-agers who serve customers their chili and grill their cheese steaks are still getting their first hands-on experience in the food service industry, they come to the diner by a far more troubled route than the city vocational school students who ran it before.

Now the teen-agers who work at the diner, located at Holliday and Saratoga streets, are sent for a six-month training program by the Department of Juvenile Services.

"These kids are first offenders, mild offenders, kids who don't belong in prison or in the [Charles H.] Hickey [Jr.] School," says Bill Staffa, who manages both the diner and its job-training program. "They're kids who just made a simple mistake or have had little or no parental guidance. Or they had a problem with chronic truancy."

Some have stolen cars, explains Mr. Staffa, 30, who works for the Chesapeake Foundation for Human Development, an organization based in Brooklyn that helps troubled youths. Other referrals to the diner have had drug or alcohol problems. Still others might be there because they refused to go to school.

In January 1991, the foundation took over the training program at the diner under contract from the Department of Juvenile Services.

That May, when the diner was closed by the department because of financial problems, the foundation asked to take over the business end as well. After working three months to pull together grant money from local philanthropic organizations, the non-profit Chesapeake Foundation reopened it in September as the Hollywood Diner.

In addition to Mr. Staffa, who has both a background in the restaurant business and a degree in psychology, there is one other on-site staff member. Professional cook Hoberta Xecominos runs the kitchen.

The six teen-agers who work at the diner are also students.

During the afternoons, they walk around the corner to the Zion Methodist Church to study for high school equivalency diplomas.

In the 18 months since the Chesapeake Foundation became involved with the diner, it already can chart its success. "We have zero recidivism," Mr. Staffa says. "That means not one kid, including kids who have completed and those who haven't completed -- not one we've even been in contact with has ever picked up another charge."

The program is doing so well that members of a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota, the Teachers College at Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley visited the diner two months ago as part of a combined study of school-based enterprises.

"We were looking for places that were unique and exemplary," says Jim Stone of the department of vocation education at the University of Minnesota. "We were trying to get beyond the commonplace and find programs that were particularly well-run. Baltimore fit our need."

One of the biggest pluses for this program is that it teaches social skills, Mr. Staffa says.

He teaches the teen-agers the basics of being friendly, starting with smiling and making conversation.

"They're usually terrified of it. They're afraid that people will be mean to them or reject them," he says.

But when they start waiting on tables, their efforts at being sociable are quickly reinforced, he continues. "Just like a real waiter, the better they are, the friendlier they are, the more money they make."

Last year Mr. Staffa contacted a personal friend, Peter Wood, who is executive steward at Stouffer Harborplace Hotel, about placing some of the graduates in jobs at the hotel.

Their early discussions led to an informal partnership between the hotel and the diner.

Four graduates of the diner now work at Stouffer's. And members of the hotel staff have helped the diner with everything from repairing refrigerators to baking a cake for its grand opening.

Mr. Staffa takes pride in the fact that the diner is nearly breaking even.

"We might lose $20,000 to $25,000 per year compared to the Kids' Diner, which lost $100,000 to $200,000 every year," he says.

In addition to the money taken in by the lunch and dinner business, the foundation rents the diner in the evening for private parties -- everything from birthday and office parties to class reunions.

For the kids, Mr. Staffa says, it is a tough program.

"We don't hold their hands. The only kids who stay here are the ones who earn it."

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