Thirteen years ago, when Fr. Franck Chaigneau, SJ, got togther with some of his executive friends to fight unemployment among the destitute and marginalized in the Paris region, a catering business, La Table de Cana, was born.
Fr. Chaigneau's company is different from most caterers. The French call it an entreprise d'insertion, a business that helps the long-time unemployed get "inserted" back into the labor market.
Table de Cana has catered hundreds of events, everything from office retirement parties and weddings to a barbecue for 3,500 that celebrated the opening of the English Channel tunnel.
The catering firm handles everything, including the meals, of course, but also hall reservations, decorations, equipment, and staff. A lot of catering involves relatively simple tasks -- dishwashing, delivery, waiting tables -- in which people moving back into the job market can take pride as they work in small, convivial teams.
Given the importance of good food in French culture, Table de Cana can run up against stiff competition. Sandwiched in between the giants and the small operations, it is the 23d largest of the 400 caterers in the Paris metropolitan area, with a gross of 12 million francs (about 2 million dollars) last year. Almost half of Table's customers are corporate, including Proctor & Gamble; the other half are divided between individuals and various associations and groups.
Table relies on social workers and agencies to refer homeless people, school dropouts, public offenders, or political refugees for its "insertion" positions. Those who come to Table de Cana have one thing in common: the jobs Table gives them are the only ones they can get. "When I got the job," says a Table delivery driver, "I came back into contact with people from the outside, the customers. I then noticed that it was not written on my forehead that I'd done time." When the experience of working or working once again gets them back on their feet, they move to a more permanent job, whether in catering or something else.
Fr. Chaigneau insists that he's not running a social service agency: "First, you have to be as good as your competition, offering the highest possible quality at the lowest possible price," he says. Yet the office staff at Table de Cana is bigger than at other caterers, since the firm teaches its employees general work habits and the technical aspects of their job while helping them set professional goals, hone job-seeking skills, and develop confidence.
Government subsidies (12 percent of revenues) defray some of these insertion costs, but not all. "The subsidies don't enable us to lower prices," says Fr. Chaigneau. "They're not enough to offset the cost of insertion. But Table de Cana draws its strength from a partnership dedicated to insertion."
Those partners Fr. Chaigneau refers to range from Table's permanent staff and shorter-term "insertion" clients to its customers and the state agencies and social workers it deals with. Together they have made Table a successful, expanding enterprise. Last year, of the 85 employees who moved on from the firm, about 65 found jobs, internships, or other situations that fit them. The company has franchised its trademark, know-how, and inspiration to create a network of catering-insertion enterprises throughout the country, in Marseilles, Lyon, and Canet-en-Roussillon, as well as three others in suburban Paris. The miracle at Cana is set to continue into the 21st century.
Author Fr. Joseph Mueller, SJ, is working on a doctorate in theology at Centre Sèvres, a Jesuit school of theology and philosophy in Paris. He wrote "Americans in Paris" in our Summer ' 95 issue.
Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, SJ, [email protected] Copyright(c) Company Magazine. Created: 2/12/1999 Updated: 2/16/1999