Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Foxes Boxes seeks to close Wilmington’s wage gap through training. And it offers affordable meals, too

Many don’t consider low-income and low-skilled young people to be desirable employees. Foxes Boxes has been working to change that by providing quality, on-the-job training to New Hanover County youths ages 17 to 24.

WILMINGTON — Nestled in the heart of the Brooklyn Arts District is a restaurant looking to remove employment barriers for low-income youth in underserved communities.

The Foxes Boxes is a counter-service restaurant serving a variety of fresh food options at reasonable prices. For many, that’s all this restaurant is.

For others, The Foxes Boxes is a gateway to success.

The Foxes Boxes offers its own on-the-job training program for New Hanover County’s marginalized youth. The Foxes Boxes Externship Program builds leadership, communication and job skills for low-income and low-skilled adolescents.

“When you’re given a space or platform it’s up to you to figure out how to make the absolute best use of it,” said Rachel Bodkin-Fox, one of the two co-owners of The Foxes Boxes. Rachel runs the restaurant with her husband, Randy.

The Foxes Boxes is a counter service-style restaurant that offers a variety of local and fresh food options priced between $6 and $12. (Port City Daily photo/OLIVIA PARR)
The Foxes Boxes is a counter service-style restaurant that offers a variety of local and fresh food options priced between $6 and $12. (Port City Daily photo/OLIVIA PARR)

The background of The Foxes Boxes

Having opened in fall 2016, The Foxes Boxes is a restaurant that offers a variety of local and fresh food options priced between $6 and $12.

Rachel Bodkin-Fox is a former nurse who recently graduated from the UNCW with a degree in public administration. Randy Fox is a 25-year hospitality industry veteran who credits most of his successes to the mentorship of various colleagues over time.

“The externship program is why we opened. It’s really the only reason we decided to run a counter-service restaurant,” Rachel Bodkin-Fox said. “After I got my masters in public administration, I started to do some research on workforce development in New Hanover County, how we’re handling income and wealth inequality and unemployment and I would consistently see jobs in the food service industry.”

Wilmington has many of service industry jobs, and over the next six years there will be consistent growth in the food-service industry, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division.

Over the next six years, Wilmington's food service industry will continue to see consistent job growth. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Commerce, Labor and Economic Analysis Division)
Over the next six years, Wilmington’s food service industry will continue to see consistent job growth. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Commerce, Labor and Economic Analysis Division)

“The average pay for a first-line supervisor, which doesn’t require a college degree, is about $30,000,” said Rachel. “Now, that is leadership position, but the opportunity is there if you have somewhere to start gaining work experience in the first place.”

Located inside the Blue Ribbon Commission’s Youth Enrichment Zone, a 140-square-block on the north side of Wilmington that struggles with crime and poverty, The Foxes Boxes also seeks to offer affordable food to local residents.

Meals–or ‘boxes’–range from $6 for grilled cheeses or chickpea wraps, to $9 for sliders and flatbreads. The most expensive box, at $12, offers meals including Cuban sandwiches and grilled chicken with brie cheese and chutney. Every box comes with one side dish.

“We are a family of five and when our kids were younger we couldn’t afford to eat fresh food anywhere as a family for less than $50-60,” Rachel said. “We want to make sure a family of five can come and eat fresh food for less than $40.”

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The Foxes Boxes Externship Program builds leadership, communication and job skills for low-income and low-skilled adolescents to help them enter the workforce. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy of The Foxes Boxes)
The Foxes Boxes Externship Program builds leadership, communication and job skills for low-income and low-skilled adolescents to help them enter the workforce. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy of The Foxes Boxes)

The Foxes Boxes externship program

The externship program total time commitment is 240 hours, broken down over eight weeks. Externs work six hours a day, five days per week.

The program has a few restrictions for program participants, such as being between ages 17 and 24, at least 90-days sober, no sex offenders or violent crimes–although they do accept those with criminal backgrounds–and preferably to have some form of consistent housing.

“We try to make the program as open as possible so we can really help remove some of these barriers. However, transportation is always going to be a barrier for some, so we work to get them bus passes so they can get to work everyday,” Rachel said.

The externship program curriculum is broken down into three different phases; phase one focuses heavily on classroom learning and study, the second phase deals with food safety and hands-on training and third phase covers practical hands-on training with a final exam and placement.

“If you don’t have any work experience, you tend to regress to treating everything like you did in school,” said co-owner Randy Fox. “If you didn’t have anything to do in school you just sat there and stared at the wall, whereas for a job there’s always something to do. We teach them how to take initiative, set goals and how to perform well in a work environment.”

The Foxes Boxes does not guarantee employment at the conclusion of the program, but externs are supposed to start the program with three jobs they are interested in applying to. Once the externship program ends, Rachel and Randy Fox continue to support the externs.

“Once you’re here, even if you struggle during the program, we’re always a support system and resource for them,” Randy said. “Some of our success stories are not employment-based, either. One of our externs completed the program, went back to his adult high school program and started getting As and Bs. Another has started toward getting his GED.”

How is the program funded?

The Foxes Boxes Externship Program’s on-the-job training program is made possible through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed into law on July 22, 2014, and is designed to help job seekers access employment, education, training, and supportive services to be a successful part of the workforce.

“The workforce development programs in New Hanover County are getting people prepared for interviews,” said Rachel. “You can interview well and land the job, but if you can’t perform, you won’t last longer than a few days or a week at most.”

“We have workforce development in New Hanover County, but they’re not really able to do comprehensive on the job training,” said Rachel. “They’re getting people prepared for interviews. You can interview well and land the job, but if you can’t perform, you won’t last longer than a few days or a week at most.”

North Carolina serves WIOA-eligible youth through the NextGen Youth Program, which focuses on offering work-based learning opportunities to the youth population ages 16 to 24 who are not attending an academic program.

In New Hanover County, the NextGen youth program is managed by EDSI, Inc., a contractor in partnership with the Cape Fear Workforce Development Board, and is hosted in the New Hanover NCWorks Career Center.

NextGen connects with local employers and educational entities to facilitate career exploration awareness for youth in the community.

“One example of an effective collaboration of workforce and economic development is through the partnership of EDSI, Inc. and Foxes Boxes,” said EDSI’s WIOA Youth Career Advisor Julia Martin.

The Foxes Boxes’ partnership with EDSI, Inc. allows for WIOA-eligible youth served in the NextGen program to receive a paid internship that exposes them to work in the hospitality and food service industry.

Co-owner Randy Fox is a 25-year hospitality industry veteran who credits most of his success to the mentorship of various colleagues over time. (Port City Daily photo/OLIVIA PARR)
Co-owner Randy Fox is a 25-year hospitality industry veteran who credits most of his success to the mentorship of various colleagues over time. (Port City Daily photo/OLIVIA PARR)

The long-term vision

Looking forward, Randy Fox sees the program continuing to grow.

“Last summer we had four externs participate and three of them are employed,” Randy said. “Ideally, we’d like 3-6 per cohort, with 40 for the year and at least 20-30 employed at the end of the year.”

Over time, The Foxes Boxes wants to build strong relationships with restaurants and hotels so they start using the externship pool to find staff for their operations.

“We want to get to a place where we can get these people to gainful employment,” Randy said. “We’re trying to do that now, just with a smaller number. As we grow, hopefully in a couple of years we’re a pipeline of this huge talent pool.”

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