Why Restaurants Are Hiring The Formerly Incarcerated

How the formerly incarcerated are finding hope for a new life in kitchens across America

"It's really hard when you are trying to change your life and have no place to go."

That's Shannon Wilson, business manager at Hot Chicken Takeover, the fast-casual restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, that trains and employs those who have been affected by the criminal justice system. "I feel like we're ostracized."

According to a study by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, 76 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals call the search for work "very difficult or nearly impossible," and two-thirds remain unemployed or underemployed a full five years after leaving prison.

Wilson, who was incarcerated for four years at the Ohio Reformatory for Women after a drug and alcohol addiction she battled starting when she was a teenager, is one of those individuals. After leaving prison and starting to look for work, she, like many other rehabilitated citizens, had trouble finding someone to hire her. "I got shut down every time."

Enter: the restaurant industry. While being one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, according to the National Restaurant Association, it's also an industry having trouble filling entry-level positions.

A meal at Hot Chicken Takeover | Photo: Courtesy of Hot Chicken Takeover

"People are really struggling to find reliable, engaged team members," Joe DeLoss, founder of Hot Chicken Takeover, says. "It's a pretty pervasive problem." This translates to an incredible opportunity, financially and socially, for both the formerly incarcerated and food businesses.

The restaurant industry is currently the "top employer of former inmates in the United States," Saru Jayaraman, cofounder and codirector of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), says in an article for Fast Company. Indeed, the culinary world across the board—from fast-casual joints to fine dining spots, bakeries to food trucks—is stepping up to the plate.

Some, like Hot Chicken Takeover and NYC food truck Drive Change, started as a means for workforce development. Jordyn Lexton launched the truck in 2013 specifically to train and find jobs for formerly incarcerated youth in New York, one of only two states that can charge 16-year-olds as adults when arrested. Others, like San Francisco's Cala, where about half the staff has been previously incarcerated, are restaurants first and fair employers second.

In both cases, excellence is at the forefront of the business, Lexton stresses. For Drive Change, winners of the People's Choice Award at the Vendy Awards in 2015, that means serving really enticing food like maple and cheddar grilled cheeses, made exclusively with locally sourced ingredients. At Cala, it's elevated dishes from renowned Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara.

A fellow at Drive Change | Photo: Jeyhoun Allebaugh

"We recognize that the consumer is going to associate the product with the person making it. It's just part of how [consumers] think about an elevated dining service," Lexton says. "These fellows will reshape the narrative about formerly incarcerated people. That's why it is so important to be really intentional about quality."

More than just a "fair chance," these restaurants provide training and skills that ideally help launch careers and fight unemployment. The restaurants, in turn, don't see the high turnover rates that plague the rest of the industry. "We're at 70 percent retention," DeLoss says of his fast-casual spot.

Take Wilson, who moved up the ranks at Hot Chicken Takeover from dishwasher to business manager, for example. As she explains, "The fact that they gave me a chance has made me extremely devoted and loyal."

When employees are ready to move on, they're equipped with transferable skills. Lexton boasts that while some of her employees have stayed on with Drive Change, others have gone on to work for the MTA or social justice nonprofits.

Icing a cake at Ovenly | Photo: Mark Weinberg

At NYC-based Ovenly, where about 40 percent of the workforce has been involved in the criminal justice system or are political refugees, founder and co-president Agatha Kulaga offers professional development training like conflict resolution, strengths training and personal finance. At her encouragement, employees hold positions across the company and have also gone on to more lucrative jobs in the industry.

"We're proud that our jobs lead to more earning potential," Kulaga says.

An open door and access to career development are a great start, but there's still work to be done. Entry-level restaurant jobs are low paying, hourly and ultimately not stable. As a result, Lexton is constantly asking herself how to create more security for her fellows.

"It's a piece of this puzzle that if we're not addressing it, we're not addressing what is really beneficial," Lexton says.

Which is why training that goes both ways is imperative. Drive Change runs a two-day employer education program for companies interested in hiring the formerly incarcerated. ROC does the same, promoting better labor practices while hosting seminars on racial, gender and implicit biases with restaurants who employ their trainees.

And better work environments are as good for employees as they are for businesses—a point not lost on DeLoss, who is expanding Hot Chicken Takeover this year to two new locations. DeLoss also hosts monthly seminars for business leaders about his successful workplace model—and they regularly sell out.

Hot Chicken Takeover | Photo: Courtesy of Hot Chicken Takeover

With more restaurants and organizations than ever participating in these programs, the kitchen is becoming a more stable and dignified work environment across the board—incarceration history or not. For returning citizens, that shift is crucial for eliminating stigma and keeping on the path to success.

When Emma Rosenbush, General Manager of Cala, was working at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, California, before getting the restaurant off the ground, she recalls, "It was so obvious that [recidivism rates] had everything to do with getting a job. To not be able to participate in that way: That's criminal."

As Wilson puts it, "I had worked so long when I was in prison to overcome and change and be a different person." Then DeLoss invited her for an interview, and the rest is history. "Joe told me, 'We're not gonna judge you by your past. We're going to judge you by your future.'"