Restaurants Can Be A Lifeline For The Formerly Incarcerated And Vice Versa

Posted: Jun 28, 2017

These programs keep people out of prison and in the kitchen

“I didn’t picture it like this,” says Darwin Hailey of his life after prison. Hailey is the executive sous chef at Edwins, a French fine dining restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. He got the job after completing six months at Edwins’s own Leadership and Training Institute, a program designed to train people who have served time in prison for careers in the restaurant industry.

Karen Webb, a current student at Edwins, spent 13 years in prison; during that time, she worked as a baker. She says a strawberry Jell-O cake she created was a hit with her fellow inmates. A few weeks into the back-of-house portion of Edwins’s training program, she made a green-apple vinaigrette so impressive that a group of paying customers asked to meet the chef.

Webb has long enjoyed cooking and worked in restaurants both before and after she served time, but she says the structure and training regimen that Edwins provides will help her advance in the industry at the end of the six months. “It's just a challenge that I want to succeed in,” she says. Hailey and Webb are two of many former inmates who are building their post-incarceration life in the restaurant industry.

Why the Fight Against Recidivism Came to Restaurants
Recidivism is astoundingly common in the U.S. (a Bureau of Justice Statistics study reports that three-quarters of released prisoners are re-arrested within five years of release). But organizations across the country are combating recidivism by helping ex-offenders kickstart long-term careers in the restaurant industry. In addition to those mentioned here, there is the Doe Fund and Drive Change in New York City, DC Central Kitchen in Washington D.C., which was the subject of an Eater story two years ago, as well as culinary-training programs within prisons, designed to give inmates a head start on the job search even before they are released, like the Clink, a restaurant inside of a London prison.

In San Diego, meanwhile, Kitchens for Good takes a comprehensive approach to solving some of the restaurant industry’s staffing problems: Aviva Paley, the organization’s director of programs, describes the 12-week intensive culinary program as teaching “everything from knife skills to life skills.”

Restaurants are often ideal places for someone with a record to start.
Since 2013, Edwins has graduated 177 students. During the six-month, two-part program, students learn traditional French cooking techniques and fine-dining service. They spend their days taking classes and the evenings running the restaurant, which recently earned five stars for both food and service from Cleveland’s Morning Journal. And while the Leadership and Training Institute doesn’t guarantee job placement, Edwins chief operating officer Gerry Grim estimates that 95 percent of graduates are working in the food or hospitality industry “from fine dining on down.”

Without the help of organizations like these, jobs, let alone careers with growth potential, can be hard to come by. Geoffrey Golia, a program director at GOSO Works, the employment development wing of Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO), a New York City re-entry program, says that the youths of color he works with are massively underemployed because they often face discrimination — even before any involvement with the criminal justice system is disclosed. “We over-police and over-arrest young men of color, then we have employers who are [reluctant] to hire any young men of color for fear they might be justice-involved,” he says. “It's a hard cycle for my guys to break out of.”

Restaurants are often ideal places for someone with a record to start, Golia says, because they are reliable. The 16- to 24-year-old justice-involved men he works with can see an ad from a restaurant and be assured that there will be real work for them the next day. According to Golia, “It’s very much one of those things where if you are looking for a job as soon as possible, your parole officer, your probation officer, your mom, your baby mom, is getting on your butt about this sort of stuff, you can get on Craigslist and find five or six busser, dishwasher, barback jobs and then from there it’s just about proving your mettle, showing your skills.”

Daniel Patterson agrees. The acclaimed San Francisco-based chef and restaurateur has worked with reentry programs to hire for mission-driven restaurants Locol and Alta CA. Once hired, an employee’s background doesn’t matter. “There’s such a stigma associated with [having a record] but that’s not something that ever enters the restaurant,” he says. “It’s not something we ever talk about. Once people are in the kitchen, they are treated like everyone else.”

Former Inmates Can Build Careers in the Restaurant Business
Tremaine Baker enrolled in the Kitchens for Good program after spending two years in prison. He now works at H20 Sushi & Izakaya in San Diego and aspires to a career as a personal chef and trainer. His family, he says, is “quite frankly shocked that [he’s] been able to do half the things [he’s] been able to do today” post-incarceration. “It’s totally possible for someone to have a rachet past, a troubled past, and be able to turn his life around in this industry,” he says. “I think it’s a saving grace.”

The restaurant industry is particularly well suited to helping people like Baker rebuild their lives, according to Paley. “I think [felons are] able to really thrive in an environment where all it takes to succeed is a lot of hard work and dedication. It doesn’t take three degrees or years of training.”

And the resources that organizations combating recidivism provide — resources that can include perks like a student and alumni test kitchen at Edwins Institute or weekly yoga sessions at Kitchens for Good — can make it easier for people to dedicate themselves to restaurant jobs after getting out of prison.

“It brought me joy being there. [Kitchens for Good has] a really good staff and support system,” says Baker. The program gave Baker computer and internet access, essential for the job search, as well as resume help. In addition to hands-on kitchen training, Baker and his fellow Kitchens for Good classmates also had the opportunity to attend nutrition classes and take field trips to organic farms. Now, he’s a part of an alumni network that can offer continued support.

Still, Entering the Restaurant Workforce After Incarceration Presents Challenges
Re-entry organizations and training programs that work with this population are quick to acknowledge that restaurants aren’t necessarily an easy career path. Hard work, as any chef will tell you, is essential to longterm success in the industry. The hours are long and nontraditional, the pay can be meager, and, in most positions, there’s a fair amount of physical labor involved.

“This is a tough industry and if you don't really love it, you're just not going to last no matter what,” Paley says. And although training programs look for passion in the students they accept, hiring people with troubled pasts doesn’t always result in a picture-perfect success story.

“This is a tough industry and if you don't really love it, you're just not going to last.”
Gabriela Camara, one of the biggest chefs in Mexico City, made a point of hiring through re-entry organizations to fill front-of-house roles when she opened her San Francisco restaurant Cala in 2015. The chef is candid about admitting that not all of those hires worked out.

“Drugs and alcohol are such a problem,” she says. Addiction — quite often the very thing that can put someone behind bars — is particularly difficult to deal with while working in restaurants. Camara, who also staffed her multiple Mexico City restaurants with the formerly incarcerated, explains: “Restaurants are a good opportunity, but they’re tough places to work in, because there are all these things around. There are people drinking, and you have to really [have it] together to be able to deal with that.”

Fellow San Francisco chef Patterson offers a different take when asked if he has encountered any challenges to hiring through re-entry programs. “Unfortunately, it’s thoughts like that that keep people from opening up that opportunity for their own restaurants,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of people with good resumes who’ve done things that are outside of what we consider to be acceptable human behavior within our restaurants, so I think that really comes down to not where they’re coming from, but how you’re hiring.”

More Than a Way for Restaurateurs to Do Good — It’s Good Business
Training programs like Kitchens for Good and Edwins are designed to produce good hires and it seems to be working: Paley reports a 4 percent recidivism rate at Kitchens for Good, compared to 50 percent for the state of California. But, ideally, hiring from this specific talent pool is a boon for the restaurants as well as the employees working to rebuild their lives.

When Camara first divulged that a significant portion of her front-of-house staff at Cala would be made up of people who had spent time in prison, San Francisco diners were supportive of her mission, and local press coverage highlighted the progressive hiring philosophy. But Camara insists the decision to seek out workers with a conviction history was almost entirely practical. “We want to stress that it’s not about making publicity out of these people’s past,” she says. “It’s about making a restaurant that works.”

Camara knew that it would be difficult to find people to work in what is one of the most expensive cities in the country. “There’s a shortage of people who can afford to live in San Francisco, working in restaurants,” Camara explains. It was Cala general manager Emma Rosenbush (Camara’s assistant at the time) who initially suggested that the organizations supporting San Francisco’s formerly incarcerated population would have people looking for full-time work — not the part-time waiters Camara had seen staff other San Francisco restaurants. Camara thought the hiring strategy made sense.

“It’s about making a restaurant that works.”
The halfway houses, rehab facilities, and other organizations that Camara and Rosenbush now work with often provide participants with support that allows them to work at Cala full-time for $18 per hour (the restaurant has a no-tipping policy) and still live in San Francisco. She cites the assisted housing, rent subsidies, and rent control as key. “It's a part of the population that many times has [housing costs] under control, so to speak, or for whom that's not an issue,” Camara says. “They need somebody to actually give them a job.”

Some organizations also offer benefits to restaurants that engage in these hiring practices — benefits beyond the knowledge that they are doing a good thing. According to Golia, GOSO Works makes use of wage subsidies for “hard-to-employ” groups of people. The organization’s restaurant partners, which include Dos Toros, Ovenly, Samesa, and Maman in New York City, agree to take on a hire through GOSO Works for a 240-hour internship. GOSO Works then covers the intern’s salary via the wage subsidy, and at the end of those hours, the business can choose to hire the GOSO intern for a full-time or part-time position on its own payroll.

Because these men can be passed over for employment even with experience, the partnership aspect of GOSO can be incredibly helpful. Golia says 71 percent of the placements they make with their 60 employer partners (not all of them restaurants) have been successful. “Our guys who get in there, who work hard and bust their butts, and I pay them on my end, they’re able to get hired in these places and develop some really, really good skills,” Golia says.

Looking Ahead, Will the Restaurant Industry Welcome This Population?
Leo Kremer, a Dos Toros co-founder, agrees that GOSO Works allows businesses to find dedicated employees who may otherwise have been overlooked. “When you’ve been through challenges in your life, you’re committed to being back on the right track, which is why you signed up for GOSO in the first place,” he says. “And when you take your opportunities seriously, and approach them with professionalism, maybe even beyond the average kind of hire that we make, it’s just a real commitment.” The New York-based taqueria chain currently has nine people from GOSO working in a permanent capacity at four restaurants.

Kremer feels that more restaurants should hire from this population, but he’s not surprised that they haven’t yet. “A lot of the restaurant industry has a very defensive mentality when it comes to hiring,” he says, referring to a divide between management and the people managers hire. “A lot of these old-school restaurants, they’re just really focused on theft or those defensive things versus really providing opportunity [and] maximizing talent.”

According to Patterson, the industry will need to change before it can get to a place where restaurants regularly reach out to hire the formerly incarcerated people ready and willing to work in restaurants. “It’s not just like you can suddenly start in fine dining,” he says. “It’s a very white culture and European, and so you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to hire people of different backgrounds’ without changing anything about how we interact with people or how we set people up for success.”

Employers at restaurants, he says, need to create a culture of love, kindness, and acceptance. This will involve changing how they interview and assess employees to weed out implicit bias. If restaurant employers don’t consider the potential of everyone, regardless of their background, Patterson says, “then what you’re going to get is a diminished restaurant, a diminished business, and a diminished industry.”

Patterson is trying to implement these changes. His latest restaurant, a new all-day Alta CA that hires in part through re-entry programs, is also the pilot restaurant in Restaurant Opportunity Centers United’s Racial Equity Program. With that advocacy organization’s help, the restaurant’s management has gone through “a very extensive rebuilding” of how they run the restaurant, including restructuring employee practices to ensure everyone is given the opportunity to succeed. Through this process, they have generated documents outlining the best practices for fair hiring with plans to make this information available to other progressive restaurants.

Patterson imagines a future where even patrons consider a restaurant’s hiring practices before choosing to dine. And while the industry isn’t there yet, it’s in the midst of a well-documented reckoning: Patterson notes that in restaurants, “everyone is complaining that they can’t find good workers.”

The presidential election has forced many to consider what restaurant kitchens would look like without undocumented immigrants, who make up at least 10 percent of the workforce. Adding to the difficulties, culinary school enrollment is on the decline. Earlier this year, AP News published a report on the trend, crediting high tuitions, waning interest, and an increase in on-the-job training with decreased enrollment and the resulting closure of several culinary schools.

Grim, the chief operating officer at Edwins, is optimistic about his students’ prospects. “Culinary school enrollment has not gone up, but [there are] more restaurants. There’s a smaller labor pool now,” he says. “Our director of education and I probably have a list of 35 restaurants that have reached out, and they’re actually starting to be more proactive.” He’s confident that restaurant operators will soon see the potential of this consistently overlooked workforce.

But having a record, Patterson says, is still “a barrier to opportunity that is unnecessary, that’s artificially imposed.” It may take both willing restaurateurs and these dedicated organizations to break down that barrier, but in the meantime, the people that these programs serve really benefit.

Before Darwin Hailey found Edwins Institute, he was de-greasing machinery in factory jobs, and pictured his future spent “roofing or doing manual labor.” To him, a career in restaurants, and in the fine-dining world in particular, can seem like a dream. “Fine dining is something wonderful,” Hailey says. “I see why people are willing to spend the money that they do because the experience is wonderful.”

Today, he commands the crew of future chefs working the line at Edwins, and a duck press is the kind of machinery he handles now. “I came in, signed up, and sure enough, I became a winner, and ever since then I have not looked back.”

by Monica Burton
Jun 23, 2017
Source: Eater

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