New Orleans — The tables were full and the food looked scrumptious Monday as Cafe Reconcile celebrated its grand re-opening after a massive expansion that could double or triple the number of young people the innovative program helps.

The restaurant, which is partially staffed by about 20 at-risk 16- to 22-year-olds, was back in operation Monday after an eight-month closure to complete about $6.5 million in capital improvements, said Glen Armantrout, the chief executive officer of the nonprofit.

Armantrout said the expansion took the usable space at the group’s five-story building on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard from 2,400 square-feet to roughly 17,000 square-feet.

Diners crammed into the restaurant during the lunch rush to enjoy the traditional New Orleans soul food the eatery specializes in providing.

But serving great food is just one of Cafe Reconcile’s missions, said Armantrout. Its primary focus is providing young people with the type of life skills and job training they need to have success in the hospitality industry and life in general. The program does that through helping young people deal with mental health issues, housing problems or transportation issues Armantrout said.

For the first three weeks of the program, participants receive life skills training and needs assessment. They then spend five weeks working in 10 different positions throughout the restaurant to prepare them for the next phase of the program.

That phase involves an internship at a local restaurant, hotel, university or hospital to receive further career development and possible full-time employment, Armantrout said.

The program’s aim is to take kids who are possibly heading down the wrong path and give them a new road map for success.

“It’s really remapping their thought process,” said Armantrout, noting that one Cafe Reconcile graduate recently won a John Besh Culinary Scholarship to study in New York. “It’s teaching that if you want to get from point A to point B, these are the steps you have to follow.”

The expansion aids the overall mission by providing the group with more space to offer assistance. Armantrout said the expansion added an entire floor dedicated to the program’s catering operation, complete with a kitchen built to handle demonstrations from outside chefs. In addition, the building now has a separate area for case managers to meet with program participants instead of having to stage hurried meetings in the dining room or in the manager’s office.

Armantrout said Cafe Reconcile has partnered with an outside group that will provide parenting classes, financial literacy training and family training for young people. There also will be tutoring, classes on healthy living and GED preparation.

Typically, the program handles about 120 kids annually, but Armantrout expects that number to skyrocket with the expansion.

“With the expanded space, we’ll be able to double and triple that number,” said Armantrout, noting that most program participants are referred by prior graduates. “Unfortunately, there’s a long waiting list to get into the program.”

The expansion was funded through a 10-year capital campaign that included private donations, federal grants and state and federal tax credits, Armantrout said.

He noted that several local businesses and companies support the program because they see the results it gets in a crucial field.

In addition, Armantrout has started bringing back recent graduates to handle some training of current participants. In total the program has 30 staff members.

Armantrout said the hospitality industry is expected to add thousands of jobs in a variety of areas in upcoming years, and Cafe Reconcile is helping prepare that workforce.

“There are careers waiting for these kids,” he said.