CEDAR CITY - The G.I. Jo’s (Culinary Arts Professional Academy) restaurant and cooking school is serving up patriotism and support for members of the armed forces and, special this Veterans Day, free meals for all.
Owners Craig and LeeAnn Leavitt are the founders of People Helping People Now, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating domestic hunger and poverty in Utah. LeeAnn Leavitt wanted to expand into a school that would train people needing jobs in both cooking skills and practical business experience; thus, the Culinary Arts Professional Academy opened in June 2012. In an effort to encourage patrons to visit the school and give students hands-on restaurant work, they began serving meals for 99 cents and drinks for 49 cents.
The restaurant’s name was chosen to honor the Leavitts’ daughter, Shyanna Jo Leavitt, who serves in the Utah National Guard, and all veterans, who hold a special place in the family’s hearts. A portion of the proceeds from regular meals go to helping veterans in need and veterans always eat free of charge.
“No one who has ever served in the armed forces should ever go hungry, hopeless or helpless in the very country they fought to defend and preserve,” Shyanna Jo Leavitt said.
“Less than 2 percent of our population has served in the military and it is the service, dedication and sacrifice of this special minority (that has) made it possible for the rest of us to enjoy being Americans. They deserve more from the rest of us than they have (received) and we think it’s time for that to change,” Craig Leavitt said. “So from the generosity of those who come to help our students achieve their goals, we are able to help those who need what the students prepare and serve.”
During the first months of G.I. Jo’s existence, they served 15 to 20 customers each day. Patronage has exploded, and they now serve an average of 200 customers in four hours. The Leavitts attributed the restaurant’s amazing popularity to not only good food but the “special” atmosphere. G.I. Jo’s serves veterans daily and has seen Purple Heart recipients, a 91-year-old member of the original Flying Tigers and many others who are heroes in their own right.
True to the spirit of the establishment, today’s party is not a commercial event, but the Leavitts’ way of inviting the public to honor veterans by dining alongside them. Meals, provided in cooperation with the Southern Utah University ROTC, are free throughout business hours for all customers.
Executive chef Shawn Fleming said that in the first hour of business, 75 people were served and G.I. Jo’s continues to have a full house.
For those unable to visit today, G.I. Jo’s is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m, serving breakfast and lunch via dine-in, take-out and catering. It is located at 5 North Main Street in Cedar City, though the Leavitts are planning to open a second branch in Washington County in the near future.
Craig Leavitt said that what makes the school and restaurant unique is that customers receive so much more than a dining experience.
“(People) come here not just for the consumer-friendly fare, but to feel something special and experience an energy that comes from being part of a patriotic history,” Craig Leavitt said. “No one has eaten (here) and not become a regular.”
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