“The way Merchant Road operates is that people don’t come to our events, our workshops or our dinners expecting anything less than the best. There’s no element of charity in terms of our marketing or in terms of what our guests and our clients expect. We have exceptionally high standards even though our staff are very much learning on the job,” explains Jane Marx to SBS Food.
Thanks to a grant from the Victorian government, the organisation, which launched last year, can now provide formal training.
Marx is the founder of Merchant Road, a not-for-profit offering hospitality training and employment to young women from refugee backgrounds. Thanks to a grant from the Victorian government, the organisation, which launched last year, can now provide formal training. Three groups of five women get paid service training, including wine knowledge and flower arrangement. They then put what they learned to practice during a series of dinners in different venues.
“We have quite high standards when it comes to aesthetic and creating moments of beauty for people. That’s everything from the linen on the table to the flowers to the exceptional food and, of course, the service,” says Marx. “We give the women we work with real ownership over the process. The end product is genuinely so good, that there’s a great deal of pride for the young people working with us.”
Marx is also considering giving some basic business and administration training in the future, like helping with ticket sales for the events. “The women we work with bring a lot of ambition with them. In addition to the hard skills they need to learn to secure employment in the hospitality industry, they also have dreams far beyond that and we’d love to nurture that,” she says.
Before launching Merchant Road, Marx ran a successful social enterprise café for three years in Richmond, but the size of the café meant opportunities were limited. With Merchant Road, she wants to reach more people, especially women.
“Over the course of three years, less than 15% of the applicants we had for the traineeship [at the café] were women. However, studies that have been done that show that for women from refugee backgrounds and women who are seeking asylum aged 18 to 24, employment is their number one priority. So there’s clearly a need for support not being met,” she says.
Learn how to make Ethiopian bread
While the main focus of Merchant Road is on training and events, it also hosts occasional workshops like The Bread Commons. Presented in partnership with bakery All Are Welcome, the Ethiopian Edition series was a huge success last year. In the workshop, Kemulat taught a group how to make three types of Ethiopian bread; ambasha, injera and malawach, while her niece Asanti facilitated the workshop. “They’re brilliant. Asanti has such a big personality, she can create an environment where people feel like they can roll up their sleeves and have a go at something they’ve never done before,” says Marx.
Asanti said she was excited for the second workshop: "Looking back, this program inspired me to take the initiative and step out of my comfort zone. I love the willingness of all the participants and volunteers to learn and try something new and diverse, and I would be honoured to teach them again."
What’s coming up?
With her social enterprise café, Marx says the success rate of young people finding employment in the five weeks following the training was 85%. “We hope to be able to maintain that success rate, I’m pretty confident,” she adds.