What is it about the food business that makes it the perfect industry for second-chance employment? From long-standing companies focused on changing lives for the better like Homeboy Industries and Dave's Killer Bread, we've seen it time and time again: Whether it's substance abuse recovery or life after incarceration, time spent in the kitchen has proved to be an accessible and, in many cases, therapeutic career choice.
For one small-business owner in Lexington, Kentucky, named Rob Perez, it was alcoholism. Out of rehab by age 25 after years of binge-drinking while working on the corporate side of Hard Rock Cafe, Perez, like so many, found himself wishing there was a place that understood addiction—any place that would offer gainful employment without the stigma associated with drug abuse. So he opened one.
Perez's Saul Good Restaurant and Pub now has three locations across Lexington. And though he never made hiring former drug users his bottom line, he did make it part of his mission. But because there are many stages of recovery, Perez actually lost employees to relapse along the way. That's when he decided his new restaurant would be a place where people in recovery work side by side exclusively. Located within walking distance from three transitional facilities, DV8 Kitchen offers homemade bread for wholesale and simple, mostly Southern, breakfast fare. To date, Perez has hired 15 people in drug and alcohol recovery, and their rate of prolonged sobriety is high.
Walking into the shop, you’ll see a rectangle-like setup with seating on one side and a glass wall that gives customers a glimpse into the bakery. “We’ve made it so transparent, because many guests are touched by addiction, and it creates a sense of connection,” Perez says. “The glass between us and the customers is also special, because the cooks can see their guests and hear what they’re saying about their food.”
If there's anything the food proves, it's that the path to recovery can be delicious. “Saturday and Sunday, it's all about cinnamon rolls, fresh egg sandwiches, huevos rancheros and breakfast tacos,” Perez says. “During the week, the orange marmalade chicken sandwich and the burger are in high demand.”
But “the rock star of the whole thing” he says, is fresh bread. “In this kitchen, everything is built around a brioche bun, a croissant, a fresh sourdough loaf or a Southern biscuit. And when you place honest good food onto those wonderful bases, it really is magical. It's something people notice is different. It’s the single reason why our customers come back. I think that’s how we were able to turn the corner and let people know we were second chance but not second rate.”
As for why a bakery over a full-scale restaurant, he says that it’s more of a scientific formula, one that’s more easily understood across various groups. “A baker is much more like an accountant, and a cook is more like an artist,” he says.
Knowing how hard it is to keep a job while fighting against habits of the past, it makes sense that food—especially the comfort foods of DV8—becomes a path toward stability. It is, after all, something we all grow up around, whether it's cooking, eating or sharing with family and friends.
There is also pride in the chefs seeing people enjoy the food they create, which helps instill serious confidence in folks who are in need of validation and encouragement during a difficult time of transition.
“I think it’s a popular second-chance job, because you work really hard, and then you get to serve your food and get instant feedback. In recovery, we need to know what our results are. I think we thrive in an environment where we 'know right away.' If someone likes it, or what you do, it's good to know it,” Perez says.
“There’s also something spiritual about a dinner table, having a meal with someone and breaking bread is special and is innate to our happiness.”
Helaina Hovitz is the author of the memoir, After 9/11. She has eaten at approximately 500 million thousand restaurants. Follow her on Twitter at @helainahovitz.
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