The GWBJ spoke with Rachel Bodkin-Fox, owner of The Foxes Boxes and executive director of TFB Externship Academy, about the recent announcement that the restaurant, along with the academy, will be closing Oct. 30.
Bodkin-Fox launched the business with her husband, Randy Fox, in November 2016 in the Brooklyn Arts District.
The concept combined the couple’s passion for food as well as social causes and as part of its mission, worked to provide on-the-job training for marginalized populations
through their externship program.
The TFB Externship Academy has always been a part of your business model – can you tell our readers how the academy functioned in connection with the restaurant?
The TFB Externship Academy was the reason we opened the restaurant. We wanted to provide individuals with employment barriers the skills necessary to shine in any profession by having them learn in a real-time restaurant environment."
How many people participated in the academy over the years? Have most of them gone on to find work in the hospitality industry?
We have had more than 30 individuals participate in our program. Every extern who completed the program transitioned into work, school or both. Even when an extern planned to work in a different industry, it was the service industry where they were able to find flexible, sustainable work that afforded them to live independently."
Why is a program like this important within our community, and will you work to find other ways to promote these kind of externships?
Most of our externs were young adults transitioning to living independently, or mothers who have been out of the workforce. Our program was unique in that we kept our cohorts to less than four people and spent 30 hours per week working side-by side with these individuals. We were able to get to know them, identify their strengths and opportunities, and create individualized plans for their personal and professional growth.
"The majority of our externs come from generations of poverty and lack of opportunity. Every month I run the Department of Labor statistics for New Hanover County and First Line Supervisors for Food Service
always tops the list for the most available job openings, the lowest number of applicants prepared to apply, and a median wage of $32,000/annually.
"These positions do not require college degrees, yet it is imperative that applicants have a strong foundation and good work ethic before applying.
Our community, like so many others across the country, does not see the talent and potential of our young adults from the low-income neighborhoods.
"The externs from our program care deeply about their families and their communities. They want to contribute to making their neighborhoods safe and healthy places to live. By earning a livable income, they can be part of the solution."
What are you most proud of from your time running The Foxes Boxes and the academy?
Emotionally, this is a very challenging question to answer. When you step inside The Foxes Boxes you can feel the good energy. Until I started reading the comments on our Facebook post about closing, I did not realize how many people felt the same as Randy and I did.
"I am so humbled and grateful that we created a space where people felt safe, supported, and connected through their personal stories. I am not yet ready to accept that I will not be seeing all the special people that walk through our doors daily. I already feel a void.
"But to answer what I am MOST proud of—I will say watching the externs who have participated in our program discover their talents, navigate life, and become the best versions of themselves. I seriously light up each time a past extern walks through the door to share new successes and sometimes setbacks.
"Life is not easy for anyone, but some are given a million additional hurdles to jump. The externs know that just because The Foxes Boxes
and TFB Externship Academy are closing does not mean I will not be in front of them knocking down each hurdle that blocks their road to personal and professional fulfillment. No matter where I end up next, those who have participated in our program know that I will always be available for guidance and support.
How much of an impact has the pandemic had on the business – would you say it was the primary driver in your decision to close?
The shared experience of COVID-19 has impacted so many in different ways. I would have to say there are many factors that have went into our closing the restaurant and the timing of COVID-19 made the decision a logical one to make.
"The Foxes Boxes opened almost four years ago on December 3, 2016 with the unique model of being a counter service restaurant that was also a training center for individuals with employment barriers. There was never a goal to be a high-volume restaurant, but rather a more intimate environment that supported the externs as they work to build confidence and skills.
"Lenders want high volume, so we were not able to secure any financial support to grow the way we wanted. We used our personal savings and credit to open the restaurant. This put a lot of physical and emotional strain on my husband and I to run all operations just the two of us. When COVID-19 arrived, we did not have any employees and the PPP funding and other programs were specifically designed to keep employees on payroll.
"It was the early financial support from the RE-3 grant and a fundraiser by FitMo that assisted us with the early losses due to COVID-19, because they had no stipulations on how the money could be used.
"The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance has been difficult as a restaurant owner demonstrating the number of hours you work without getting paid (it sounds unbelievable, but anyone who owns a small restaurant knows that that the owner gets paid last and works 65+ hours/week).
"Our revenue since opening back up for carryout in June is only enough to cover the overhead of the restaurant and nothing more.
"With the polarization that has occurred related to COVID-19, it is difficult to make business decisions that are pleasing to everyone. Opening full capacity would not save our business for a variety of reasons. As shared above our restaurant is a space to bring people together and it will be quite a while before we will feel safe to have a standing room-only event. The timing was right to close, but making the call was anything but easy."
What’s next for you and Randy?
"Good question. Right now, Randy and I need to have some verifiable income. We are networking and looking for work that has meaning, but also a paycheck. It is scary to consider we closed the doors to the only means to support ourselves, but we have to remain hopeful that there is an opportunity waiting for us on the other side of October 30.
"I am just grateful for the love and wonderful tributes we have received. I am humbled beyond words and feel so fortunate that I was able to create so many special memories at The Foxes Boxes. It is hard to say goodbye."
The Foxes Boxes will be open today through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and October 27-30 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. as well.
Have a tip for Restaurant Roundup? Email us at: [email protected]