This story appeared in the February 7, 2018, issue of AL DÍA
When it comes to cuisine in Philadelphia, Chef Jose Garces is a household name.
For the better part of the past two decades, Garces has been establishing himself as one of the city’s most prominent culinary entrepreneurs, opening acclaimed restaurants such as Amada, Distrito, and Tinto. In all, Garces owns and operates more than a dozen eateries, including locations in Atlantic City and New York.
The chef’s abilities have also earned him national recognition, including winning Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef” competition in 2009.
While Garces is well known as a chef-restaurateur, there’s another aspect of the entrepreneur that has gone less publicized—his philanthropic efforts through the Garces Foundation.
Garces co-founded the organization with his wife, Beatriz Garces, in 2012. Since then, the foundation has been on a mission to provide health and education services for immigrants in Philadelphia.
A Community in Need
Life for many American immigrants is a life of continual uncertainty, especially within the Hispanic community.
This uncertainty applies to medical care. According to Pew Research Center, about 40 percent of foreign-born Hispanics in the U.S. lacked health insurance in 2014, a statistic that nearly triples the percentage of the total U.S. population that was uninsured the same year, which was 14 percent.
In addition to health concerns, a language barrier creates a multitude of difficulties for many immigrants in the U.S. For example, without the ability to speak English, immigrant workers are hindered in advancing beyond entry-level employment in their careers.
Of course, on a broader level, this language barrier also limits one’s ability to communicate their needs, both simple and dire.
To address issues such as these in Philadelphia, Beatriz and Jose, who are both from immigrant backgrounds, started the Garces Foundation.
While neither Beatriz nor Jose is originally from the City of Brotherly Love, both have achieved success here.
“This city has been really good to us,” Beatriz said.
While her husband may be more widely recognized, Beatriz has also established herself as an entrepreneurial leader in Philadelphia. Born and raised in Cuba, she came to Philadelphia to study dentistry at Temple University. After earning her degree in dental medicine, Beatriz started her own practice, Garces Dental Group, which is located in the Old City neighborhood.
After years of hard work, the Garceses have realized the American Dream, and through the Garces Foundation, the couple is able to share that dream with others living immigrant stories.
A Mission to Educate
Like Beatriz, Jose’s parents came to the U.S. from Latin America, emigrating from Ecuador to Chicago in the 1960s. Jose, who was born in 1972, witnessed firsthand the challenges his family faced.
“I saw my parents struggle” Jose reflected, noting their circumstances were sometimes unpredictable, moving from “job to job, home to home, apartment to apartment.”
Today, after 25 years working in restaurants, Jose has seen these difficulties mirrored in the lives of many employees in the hospitality business, a large portion of whom are Hispanic immigrants.
“Seeing the plights and the struggles of this immigrant community that’s in hospitality was something that really rang a bell for me,” Jose said.
The chef and entrepreneur wanted to give these workers with the opportunity to build better lives for themselves by providing them with the tools needed to advance beyond entry-level positions.
“I wanted to see these dishwashers (and) food runners become sous chefs, chefs, general managers,” Jose said. “How do we get them there? Well, it starts with the language.”
That’s why the Garces Foundation offers its “English for the Restaurant & Everyday Living” program. With this 12-week course, which runs four times per year, students spend three hours per week enhancing their English communication skills.
“For someone to succeed in our industry, you have to be able to speak the language,” Jose explained. “You’ve got to be able to talk and communicate and learn business terms.”
The Garces Foundation also offers workforce training programs throughout the year. In 2017, the organization held about 20 of these 90-minute courses, including classes on pasta making, cocktails, and knife skills.
A Mission of Care
Beatriz understands immigrants have played an enormous part in shaping U.S. society, and this crucial role served as an inspiration in starting the Garces Foundation.
“(Immigrants) come here, they work really hard, they contribute to the economy of the country and the City of Philadelphia,” Beatriz said. “We feel like they contribute a lot. It’s time for us to contribute to them.”
The dentist noted that there is “a large proportion of immigrants who are in the dark,” lacking access to medical services. To help remedy this issue, the Garces Foundation hosts “Community Health Days” on four Saturdays per year at Beatriz’s dental practice.
There, medical, dental and administrative volunteers offer underserved and uninsured immigrants (including those who are undocumented) free medical and dental services. Beatriz said these services include oral and physical exams, teeth cleanings, flu shots, and HIV testing, as well as testing to check patients’ blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
Beatriz even runs a program in which patients in need can return to her practice for restorative dental services.
“There’s a huge component of education during our community health days,” Beatriz added. “We educate our patients on how to lead healthier lives, and also where they can get the follow-up care for medical (services) in the event that they need it.”
A Celebration of Success
This week the Garces Foundation and Garces Group (Jose’s hospitality company) will be honored by the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GPHCC) with an Excelencia Business Award. With these awards, GPHCC recognizes and celebrates successful initiatives, achievements, and contributions from businesses and professionals in the Philadelphia region’s Latino community.
The awards ceremony will be held during the Alegria Ball, an annual fundraising gala organized by the chamber. The Alegria Ball takes place on Friday, February 9, at the Atrium at the Curtis Center.
“It’s such an honor to be recognized by our community, by our peers, and especially the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce,” Jose said.
At the event, the Garces Foundation and Garces Group will be recognized as Corporate Initiative of the Year. Fellow honorees include South Philly Barbacoa and El Compadre Restaurant (Hispanic Business of the Year), as well as Javier Garcia, a Senior Vice President of Comcast (Hispanic Professional of the Year).
For Beatriz and Jose, the award presents an opportunity for the foundation to further its mission to serve Philadelphia’s immigrant community by raising awareness of the organization’s efforts.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the Garces Foundation than I am today,” Jose said.
A Group Effort
The Garceses know they couldn’t have built the foundation alone.
“It’s not just Jose and I,” Beatriz said. “We had the vision and the idea, but it has taken a lot of wonderful people to do what we do.”
Those “wonderful people” include the foundation’s donors and sponsors, as well as its more than 80 volunteers. Marco Roman, who is originally from Mexico, began volunteering for the organization last year, making phone calls to students of the English program to remind them to attend.
For Roman, part of what makes the work so worthwhile is his understanding of the benefits that come with being able to adequately communicate, especially during emergency situations, such as when a parent needs to bring a child to the hospital or when a pregnant woman is going into labor.
The Garces Foundation has a staff of three people dedicated to the organization’s mission: Executive Director Robin Morris, Finance and Administration Director Michael Barnes, and Program Manager Jillian Gierke.
As hostilities against immigrants have recently pervaded the U.S. political spectrum, Morris, who began her role with the organization in 2016, finds meaning in working for an organization that has built trust within the immigrant community.
“I think supporting immigrants really reflects American values and what’s best about our country,” Morris said. “Being a part of this (foundation) is incredibly gratifying.”
Beatriz said that in 2017 the Garces Foundation experienced the most growth since the initiative began in 2012. The organization provided more than $300,000 worth of free medical and dental services to the community, she said, and more students than ever registered for the foundation’s English program.
“I’m very proud of the growth that we’re having,” Beatriz said with a smile. “And I look forward to continuing to grow so that we can make a bigger impact and make people healthier and educated.”
The Garces Foundation will host its annual fundraising “Think Local/Give Local” event on Friday, April 13, at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel.
The next Community Health Day is scheduled for Saturday, May 19, at Garces Dental Group, 212 Race Street, Philadelphia 19106.
For more about the Garces Foundation, including information on registering for classes and volunteering, visit garcesfoundation.org or call 267-284-7905.