Comal maintains an ever-shifting menu based on the recipes of its employees, who are participants in a workforce development or entrepreneurship program. Comal has served cuisines from Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia and Mexico in the past. Each Comal participant spends 18-24 months in the program, learning commercial kitchen health and safety standards, budgeting for recipes, business ownership and kitchen management.
Participants are also encouraged to share recipes from their family or home; Comal executive chef Arden Lewis guides them in scaling recipes for commercial use. Twenty-four people have graduated from the program since 2016; four of those graduates have started their own businesses, and many have worked in local restaurants, including Safta, Work & Class and the recently opened Cantina Loca.
The menu for Semana Santa was created by the current group, which includes women from Mexico and Venezuela. When the participants realized they all planned to celebrate Semana Santa, they wanted to bring that celebration to Comal’s customers. The women designed the menu and have presented a lineup of items that highlights traditional Semana Santa meals, including sopa tarasca, a creamy bean soup with tortilla chip topping, fried chile, cheese and crema; empanadas de vigilia de verduras, filled with potato, onion, pumpkin, carrot and peas; and pastel horneado de papas con espinacas, which piles layers of mashed potatoes with stewed spinach and cheese. There will also be fried potato pancakes with tuna, chile relleno and coconut flan.
Comal drew attention last year when it landed on the New York Times list of fifty best restaurants along with Boulder’s Frasca. “Holy moly, our revenue tripled in three days,” says Focus Points director of social enterprise Matthew Vernon. “We were so busy, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” Comal was not entirely ready for that kind of crowd. The burst of attention was particularly tough because staff was still thinner due to COVID.
Like most restaurants, Comal was hit hard by the pandemic. The restaurant closed for three months and shut down its catering program, which still hasn’t restarted. Vernon says its 2020 sales dropped by 95 percent from the previous year, and its participant program dropped from fifteen to six. Even with the added attention from the New York Times list, the restaurant and training program were only able to stay afloat because its parent organization stepped in.
“We were lucky to have Focus Points,” notes Vernon — which is why Comal is helping raise money for the nonprofit. Comal and Focus Points launched a fundraising campaign last week with the goal of bringing in $100,000 by June to refill its coffers and hire additional Comal staff. Vernon is hoping that Comal will be back up to fifteen participants in 2023, and wants to relaunch its catering program by July. “It’s the last hump to get us out of the COVID damage, for both Comal and Focus Points as a whole. The funds will help us repair the sails to keep things open.”
In less than a week, the campaign has brought in $19,000, according to Jules Kelty, executive director of Focus Points. She adds in a written statement that “Comal has touched so many lives in its five-and-a-half years of business, and preserving the program is incredibly important to us as an organization. In addition to the fundraiser, we’re employing multiple strategies to protect the organization in this challenging time and Comal is a huge priority in that.”
The Comal participants’ choice to celebrate Semana Santa, a week that celebrates rebirth and spring, could be considered prescient, as Focus Points launches its campaign in hopes of giving Comal and the nonprofit rebirth and stability.
Comal Heritage Food Incubator is located at 3455 Ringsby Court and is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Semana Santa menu will only be available April 12-15. Donations for the fundraiser can be made online.