Forge City Works announces new fund in memory of founding Executive Director Cary Wheaton
Forge City Works’ founding executive director, Caroline “Cary” Wheaton, passed away on May 8, 2021. A new fund is currently being established in her memory to support an issue she was known to be passionate about.
“At least two years ago, before the pandemic, Cary said to me, Before I die, I want to do something about racism in the culinary field. It’s not okay that a field I love, that has meant so much to me, has such segregation,” said Mary Cockram, Forge City Works’ longtime grant writer. “She wanted to take the next step and be a model for equity in restaurants here in Connecticut.”
Wheaton often cited dramatic statistics about culinary training that echo the lack of opportunity for Black and brown people broadly in the United States. Data from the 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that although low-level, hourly positions—such as dishwasher, prep cook, and busser—are filled nationwide by minority workers 40 to 58 percent of the time, managerial and professional salaried positions of chef and restaurant manager or highly tipped waiter or bartending roles are filled by whites 75 to 85 percent of the time.
Wheaton was a serial restaurateur who successfully started and ran several restaurants in the Boston area. She was a founding partner and ran the front of the house at the ground-breaking East Coast Grill in Boston, as well as the Blue Room, Jake and Earl’s Dixie BBQ, and Jake and Earl’s Inner Beauty Hot Sauce company. She and her sister Sarah and brother-in-law Julian Frigo created Full Moon, another award-winning restaurant that catered to young families and included a play space for kids.
“Despite the acclaim that Cary received in her public life, she would have defined herself first and foremost as a mom. Cary was a generous and brilliant thinker who focused on those who are often unseen. She gave more than she took in everything she did, and she left the worlds in which she moved better than they had been,” said her sister Sarah.
“Cary was the inspiration and guiding force for the Melville Charitable Trust’s community development and economic opportunity work in the Frog Hollow Community of Hartford,” said Aimee Hendrigan, Executive Vice President of the Melville Charitable Trust. “Her vision for Firebox Restaurant and Forge City Works created opportunities and pathways for success for community residents while building thriving social enterprises that garnered national attention. Cary was a rare person who combined a keen and indomitable entrepreneurial spirit with a deeply caring and compassionate nature. We were all so fortunate to have worked with her and called her a friend.”
The Melville Charitable Trust’s late charismatic leader, Bob Hohler, lured Wheaton to Hartford from Boston, and invested in Forge City Works. “She thought she was going to be here for a few months to get Firebox established, but fourteen years later she was still here and still making a difference in the culinary field,” Hendrigan continued.
Firebox—the Hartford restaurant whose profits helped sustain Forge City Works—closed permanently early in the pandemic, part of widespread closures in the restaurant business and culinary field.
Forge City Works’ mission, which Wheaton helped articulate and enthusiastically embraced, is to provide job training and food access, and to create sustainable social enterprises to help people improve their lives. The new fund will continue and enlarge upon that mission.
And it is a necessary one. A 2014 audit of fine-dining restaurants’ hiring practices found white applicants for fine-dining server positions (generally the better-paid positions) were more likely to be interviewed—and twice as likely to be hired—as equally or better-qualified workers of color applying to the same establishments.
Cary Wheaton’s legacy aims to change that. She leaves behind a vibrant organization and a will to effect change in the local community. Her memorial fund will be focused on making sure that the future is bright at the highest levels of the restaurant business… for everyone.
For more information on The Cary Wheaton Memorial Fund and how you can contribute visit: www.forgecityworks.org/carywheaton