Serving Up Opportunity
Have a look around the next time you’re having dinner in one of your favorite restaurants. There’s an increasing chance one of your waiters—or the chef or a kitchen worker—has a prison record.
It’s not hard to understand why. The restaurant business struggles with finding good, hardworking employees, and the staff turnover can be crippling. That’s why some food businesses have made a policy of giving a second chance to people with criminal records. In fact, restaurant owners are among the most committed and innovative when it comes to job training for ex-offenders: some of these businesses run their operations as schools where individuals with a criminal record can get a culinary education—and a paycheck.
Restaurants have provided opportunities to millions of people across the country. Rob Gifford, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, says the industry is committed to helping people acquire the skills they need to thrive. “Restaurants continue to open doors for people from all backgrounds—including previously incarcerated individuals looking for a second chance,” he says.
Two of the stars in this field are EDWINS in Cleveland, which was the subject of Knife Skills, a documentary nominated for an Oscar in 2018, and Café Momentum in Dallas, which has been featured in numerous TV and newspaper reports. While broadly taking a similar approach, EDWINS founder Brandon Chrostowski and Café Momentum chef and founder Chad Houser each work with a different segment of the prison population. EDWINS is about rehabilitation: its students are adults with criminal records trying to rebuild their lives. Café Momentum is about prevention; its paid interns are kids who have been in trouble with the law but aren’t old enough yet to have adult records.
Here’s how they both do it in their own way.
EDWINS is an upscale French restaurant launched in 2013 by Brandon Chrostowski, a veteran chef who has worked in Chicago, New York, Paris, and Cleveland. While living in Cleveland, he taught cooking courses in local prisons—and liked it so much he decided to do it full-time. He got backing from his boss and other donors and launched EDWINS.
Chrostowski came by his passion honestly. He was inspired to hire ex-offenders by his own experience with the law as a young man in Detroit. After he was arrested on a drug charge, the judge gave him the choice of going to jail or getting a job. Jail didn’t sound all that great, so Chrostowski found a job in a Greek restaurant, and cooking turned out to be his life’s work.
So far, so good.
Over the last few years, EDWINS, a nonprofit, has expanded to include prerelease programs in 13 Ohio prisons, an EDWINS butcher shop, and a residential facility for students while they are training. In addition to culinary training, EDWINS helps students get reestablished in the world by showing them how to obtain driver’s licenses, professional accreditation, and bank accounts. The name is an abbreviation of “education wins.” So far, the prison program has graduated more than 400 people; another 286 have trained at the restaurant itself.
Chrostowski says the six-month restaurant course is designed to give students a crash course in every aspect of running a restaurant, from chopping mushrooms to the ins and outs of restaurant finance.
The biggest problem many ex-offenders bring with them is a lack of self-esteem. “You can tell,’’ Chrostowski says, “just by the energy that they answer certain questions with. Like ‘How’s your day going?’” He has learned that those who have reflected hard while behind bars and have decided that they want a taste of winning tend to make the best students and employees. “Once people think that way, teaching a skill on top of that is easy,” he says.
EDWINS’s restaurant program is designed to rebuild the confidence of its students by giving them a steady stream of increasingly challenging tasks to master. The first week of the training program involves memorizing culinary math (e.g., how many teaspoons in a tablespoon); this is followed by segments on safety and sanitation, gastronomic history, knife skills, sauces, and pairing wine with food.
Giving students a sense of accomplishment fast is important to keeping them motivated. “If maybe the streets are looking kind of tempting early on,” says Chrostowski, “we want the student to think, ‘Wait, I’m winning here at a certain clip. This is where I need to be.’”
When businesspeople from other industries tell Chrostowski they want to replicate what he is doing, he encourages them enthusiastically. “Just give me a call,” he says. His advice is to ask three questions before you start. “First is what and how are you going to teach?” he says. “The second thing is how are you going to make it sustainable, and the last is where are you going to get the people?” While answers to the first two will vary from business to business, Chrostowski says, the last is usually answered easily with a call to a state or county office for prisoner reentry.
Café Momentum hires and trains minors coming out of juvenile detention as two-month paid interns. The restaurant, which serves New American cuisine, provides these young men and women with caseworkers, teachers, and counselors. It also gives them referrals for permanent jobs at Dallas-area restaurants and hotels.
“The idea here is to create an ecosystem of support for the kids on all the issues and barriers that have prevented them from achieving their full potential in life,” founder and chef Chad Houser says.
The program started in 2009 when Houser taught some kids in detention to make ice cream for a competition. The enthusiasm of the teens he taught inspired him to launch Café Momentum. Between 60 and 70 percent of the restaurant’s workers at any time are young people with juvenile records. Houser says 751 kids so far have come through the program and only a handful have gotten into trouble with the law again.
One of the biggest lessons Houser has learned is how to win the trust and respect of kids who are often labeled “throwaways.” Changing old habits is tough. “Of the kids I’m dealing with, 62 percent are homeless,” Houser says. “When we first opened, some would just walk away from their stations, walk out of the restaurant, and go around the corner to a taqueria or 7–Eleven to get food; then they’d come back, sit down, and eat.” He lectured the kids about it, but they kept doing it. “I felt defeated,” he says.
It took him a while to realize that it wasn’t a matter of the interns’ disrespecting him or the restaurant. They were poor kids who couldn’t wait around until the restaurant served them lunch late in the afternoon before it opened for dinner.
“They’re working all day with food, and they weren’t allowed to eat it. They were hangry,” he says. The problem was solved by a large box of granola bars. “I said, I’m going to make a deal with you. I’m going to give you two granola bars; whenever you get hungry, go ahead and eat them but don’t leave your station, don’t leave the restaurant. If you’re still hungry, I’ll give you more. And then at 4 p.m. we’re going to sit down and have a big meal; we’ll feed you like always. And they said OK.
“And I never had a problem again.”
Houser believes that businesspeople inspired by his example don’t need to build big or ambitious programs. “The best piece of advice I got,” he says, “was to focus on one kid. Help that kid. Then help another one, and another one. There are 14,000 restaurants in the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex, and if only half of them hired one juvenile offender a year that would cover every kid in the juvenile justice system.”