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Walking inside the bright Café (R)égal, the familiar ingredients of a sustainable restaurant can be seen. Here, a chalkboard lists the local farmers from which foodstuffs are sourced. Each table is topped with cloth napkins instead of disposable paper. A poster on the wall shows the happy chickens that benefit from the kitchen’s compost. All these elements minimize Café (R)égal’s impact on the environment. What makes them unique, is how this conscientious café is also making an impact on people’s lives.

Café (R)égal is a restaurant d’insertion, meaning it offers work training to people with disabilities. These apprenticeships provide a much-needed springboard into the workforce and something even more essential: a place where folks of all backgrounds are on the same footing. Hence, the “égal” (equal) in the café’s name. The added “r” is for régal, meaning both delight and delicious in French.

Café (R)égal

“Many people think ‘disabled’ means someone in a wheelchair,” explains owner Virginie Capitaine. “In fact, many disabilities are not visible to the eye – like cognitive impairment or chronic fatigue.” She previously worked to improve accessibility for the disabled community, particularly in tourism. Yet, she found that in travel, disabilities were hidden or separated. To break down prejudices, the real necessity was to “have people engage with each other.” Virginie realized a convivial café would be the ideal setting for this interaction.

Two Marseille encounters helped make her dream a reality. By volunteering at Handestau, a L’Estaque non-profit that provides food and beverage training to people with disabilities, Virginie forged a connection for future staff. Then, she met a local chef, Hervé Thibout. The Marseillais was eager to find more meaningful work than the 4-star chain hotels where he was cooking. Considering Virginie had no culinary background, Hervé was an essential ingredient.

Café (R)égal

They found a vacant restaurant space in Joliette, a revamped neighborhood in the Euroméditerranée business district. Design details sprouted from Café (R)égal’s ethos. Virginie had a carpenter build tables out of recycled wood with no interior legs and a higher height to accommodate wheelchairs. A local graphic designer made posters to illustrate the café’s solidarity (portraits of the team), its no-plastic policy (reusable glass containers) and the homemade goodness (fresh-baked bread.)

The café’s hub is the open kitchen which encourages interaction between the staff and customers. Hervé and his kitchen crew prep, cook and package the dishes into individual glass jars that get neatly stacked at the deli counter in front of their prep station. In this way, customers can order with their eyes and ask for suggestions from the kitchen.

While the recipes change daily, what is constant here is that – as the restaurant puts it –  “tout est local dans le bocal” (everything is local in the jar). Provençal bounty can be savored with a squash soup or a flan made with zucchini and brousse, fresh goat cheese. A merlu (hake) is served with black rice from the nearby Camargue, deliciously studded with caramelized onions and tomatoes. The staff is welcome to contribute their own recipes, like intern Moudijbou’s poulet pilao, a spiced chicken dish from Comoros, an island nation that makes up a large percentage of Marseille’s African community.

The bread is baked fresh each morning, from a fantastic focaccia to batbout, a Moroccan flatbread. Kathie, a new hire, oversees the baking. With her apprenticeship, she is earning hours for her CAP (vocational certificate), as is Aghilès, the smiling young man in glasses who is one of the original staff. Homey desserts include panna cotta with a summer apricot coulis and moist brownies. We later discovered the latter were made by an intern, Lilian, when we saw him smiling proudly in a photo posted on Café (R)égal’s Facebook page.

While the recipes change daily, what is constant here is that, as the restaurant puts it,  “tout est local dans le bocal”  – everything is local in the jar.

“As soon as they have confidence, something clicks,” beams Virginie, ever pleased with her staff. Like them, she is learning on the job. For instance, the first recipe checklist she created turned out to be confusing for those who had a learning disability. So, she created a simple PowerPoint slideshow where each page showed a picture of the ingredient and what to do with it. Each apprentice and intern is encouraged to find the role which suits them best, from waiting tables to food prep.

If there are leftovers, Hervé is the “king of recycling,” boasts Virginie. He’ll revamp the porc effiloché (pulled pork) sandwich into a killer hachis parmentier (French Shepherd’s Pie.) To avoid waste, the chef also doesn’t make large quantities. So, if you want to ensure your dish is available, pop in early or call ahead, like the regular who reserves her vegetarian stew in advance.

Most of the ingredients come from within 125 miles. That even includes beverages: beers from Marseille microbrewery Zoumaï, coffee from local roaster Brulerie Moka, and wines from the nearby Var region. Fish has been the most challenging to source locally. That might seem odd, considering Marseille sits on the teeming Mediterranean. But the decreasing number of independent fishermen already have their quota reserved for bigger restaurants.

Almost all of the café’s customers work in offices nearby. They appreciate that its affordable (just 14.90€ for a three-course meal) and that you can get a healthy sit-down or to-go meal quickly thanks to the handy glass containers. Virginie opened in Joliette intentionally, recognizing the need of another lunch option in the business-centric neighborhood.

Two years in, Café (R)égal has been a recipe for success. Virginie is forging partnerships with Herve’s hotel connections so that staff have stable jobs to transition to after their three-year apprenticeship. The young entrepreneur is also now being contacted by local companies to consult on integration. And, the café is serving 50 covers a day, exceeding their expectations. Proving that good food is even greater when made with good intentions.

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Published on October 26, 2021

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