Back in our 2023 March-April issue, we featured Off the Block Salsa and Pizzas, a platform created by Will and Becky Green of Mentoring Positives aiming to inspire youth through social entrepreneurship and providing hands-on educational insights to the range of responsibilities involved in running a business. Only a few months after the article released, Will and Becky opened Muriel’s Place, a kitchen/restaurant where youth in our community are serving and producing Off the Block products.

“I started Mentoring Positives due to the loss of my mom,” says Will. “She had breast cancer, and I lost her at 46 years old. Her name was Muriel Pipkins. My mom was a good cook from Gary, Indiana. I created Mentoring Positives, named after her initials, to mentor our youth in the community. This new space, Muriel’s Place, is where a lot of magic happens for the kids.”

Will’s mentoring methodology focuses heavily on life skills, but he recognizes that most youth aren’t going to seek out someone to teach them interpersonal communication, creative thinking, problem solving, and the like. Rather, many youth are looking to learn skills that have immediate value, are career focused, or are fun to learn.

“I always think about activities to hook kids in, and then we teach the life skills in the form of group discussions, not having a father, peer pressure, all those things kids go through. We work on the socio-emotional makeup of the individual. No matter if they’re playing basketball, cooking food, doing math in the classroom, if you’re a good person, you can navigate the world.

“Being in the kitchen at Muriel’s Place, the hook is through food. It’s a place that brings people together. There are so many cultures you can introduce the kids to. There are also life skills we’re giving the kids. We know that they’re not going out and buying food every day—eating out. They can cook for themselves and host their own friends in their home or space.”

Everyone working at Muriel’s Place is learning the language of love through food. What you cook and what you eat show how you love yourself. Naturally, food can be also used to show love to others. And not just friends and family. The model of this kitchen/restaurant is meant to be a space for youth to develop positive relationships along with those valuable skillsets, so love is part of the process.

“We’re teaching kids how to be part of a team and to take some leadership. We work it at the speed of the kids. We’re not necessarily concerned about all the sales. We’ll get to that point. I think there’s something like $84 million of pizza sold in Dane County, so we just want to get 1 percent of that. We get 1 percent of that, we can run this whole operation. That’s what we’re striving for, but that’s the future. Right now, we’re just more concerned with engaging kids, giving them opportunities, being around positive adults, positive peers, and working on their skills to be well.”

If you dig what Will and Becky have going on, it’s as easy as pizza to support them. At Muriel’s Place, located in the former Ella’s Deli, you can get Off the Block’s scratch-made salsa and pizza products as well as other surprises the kids are cooking up, like chocolate chip cookies. Cheese, pepperoni, sausage, and veggie pizzas are available year-round along with creative seasonal flavors. Want to sit down, it’s a restaurant. On the go, order carryout. Don’t want it now, get a frozen pizza and jar of salsa. Almost as an acknowledgment to the diversity of the youth he works with, nothing Will does is one size fits all.

Whether athletic or academic, creative or precise, kitchens reward all approaches to cooking. There’s room for taking chances and times when exact measurements are needed. Will coaches girls’ basketball at Madison La Follette and sees similarities between telling his players to snap their wrists when shooting and flipping that spatula to fluff eggs.

As with any restaurant, there’s more to Muriel’s Place than just the food. “We give kids other aspects of the business. They’re part of the marketing, which is big for us because the main thing about Muriel’s Place right now is we need to bring awareness and let people know that we’re out here. They get the financial literacy piece. All those aspects that go into business.

“We have the opportunity to have other organizations come in and give touchpoints on careers, like marketing and engineering. We have created this space where we can not only teach the kids about these food products, but we’re also giving them other touchpoints on careers they may be interested in that they just don’t know about.”

Muriel’s Place is only open Monday through Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., but Will encourages businesses and organizations to rent out and hold events in the space. He’ll do what he can to accommodate groups outside business hours and feels strongly that when more people utilize his space, he’s able to help that many more kids.

“I started Mentoring Positives in 2004,” says Will. “It feels amazing to know that I’ve been with kids when they were 8 or 9 years old, and now they’re 28 and 29. And I’m still connected to them. I never imagined when I first started this that kids would come up to me and say, ‘Bro, you had those groups back when we were younger. That impacted me a lot.’ I never really imagined kids that are grown up walking up to me saying how impactful this was and how they remember it.”

Muriel’s Place is a space where local youth want to be. Will wants the kids he’s working with to be proud of what they’re doing. To be proud of who they are. “We’ve saved lives. We’ve lost some too; I’m not going to say we’ve saved every kid. But I know we’re putting product in the community that’s going to change the world.”

Kyle Jacobson is a writer who uses subtraction to make a difference.

Photographs by Courtney Terry.

Muriel’s Place
2844 E. Washington Avenue
Madison, WI 53704
(608) 602-8877