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Former Prisoners Succeeding in Hospitality Industry

Regarding employment for newly released prisoners, two stereotypical jobs often come to mind, washing dishes and bussing tables at diners or restaurants. While those jobs are certainly still available, more and more prisoners are taking advantage of hospitality education and training to become cooks and chefs, filling an increasing demand in eateries across the United States and in Great Britain.

As is so often the case, California is leading the way in this area with San Quentin prison’s Quentin Cooks (QC). A culinary training program begun in 2016, QC was founded by restaurant chefs Lisa Dombroski and Helaine Helnitzer. QC’s aim is to impart basic to advanced cooking skills that are required in order to work in a commercial kitchen to prisoners. Teamwork and understanding of interaction with coworkers from diverse backgrounds also are part of the training.

The course lasts for 12 weeks with an average of nine men per class. Of the five successfully completed classes, 29 men were released. Twelve got jobs at well-known establishments like Oakland’s Homeroom and the Smoke Berkely barbecue restaurant.

The programs continues under the tutelage of local Marin County chef Huw Thornton and his assistant Adelaar Rogers.

Graduates receive a Food Handler Certificate from the Marin County Department of Health.

Los Angeles, Californian Francisco “Frank” Mendoza began his sojourn into food service in 2010 after his release from state prison. Mendoza learned the ins and outs of sushi from his nephew who holds the title of suchero, or sushi master. Together they purchased a used hot dog cart through a Craigslist ad, repurposing it into a sushi cart. During the past nine years, he has opened and now owns three restaurants called Sushi Loco — and gainfully employs 120 citizens.

On the nation’s East Coast, former federal prisoner Candido Ortiz opened his El Sabor del Cafe in Jersey City, New Jersey, on December 17, 2019. During his time in prison, Ortiz became interested in food service. Working his way up the ladder, he earned competency certificates in several culinary arts areas and became the prison’s head cook with 20 assistants preparing meals for a population of 2,500 men. He was released in 2016 with other prisoners serving disproportionately long sentences for relatively minor drug offenses by order of President Obama.

His stepping stone to restaurant ownership was his successful completion of New Jersey’s Reentry Corporation Program.

Not too far from Ortiz’s cafe is the Fife and Drum Restaurant. It is a tiny luncheonette consisting of only 12 tables and is open from 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. The price for a meal is a beyond-reasonable $3.21 with rave reviews for the taste and quality of the fare being the norm. The only catch is that you have to go to prison to eat there.

This particular establishment has been in operation for 22 years and is staffed exclusively by state prisoners who cook, bake, serve, clear tables and wash dishes, learning all of the aspects of commercial food service businesses.

Located at the Northeastern Correctional Center in Concord, Massachusetts, the program is run by former restaurant owner and current instructor Eddie Jacobs. Vegetables and herbs used to prepare meals are grown at the pre-release minimum security prison. Many former program graduates have moved on to lucrative hospitality positions, with one of them hosting a Food Network show.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in Great Britain is a unique restaurant chain. It is appropriately called The Clink with its four eating establishments located in the Brixton, Cardiff, High Down and Styal prison units. A prospective patron must first be vetted by a security background check and not mind dining with plastic cutlery and the absence of any alcoholic beverage. The prisoner participants earn City and Guild vocation qualification certificates, opening the door to a workforce as shorthanded as its counterpart is in the U.S. Recidivism rates that vary between 37 percent and 62 percent are down to 15 percent among The Clink group releasees. The Clink project has expanded to encompass four more prisons at present.

Back home, the U.S. Department of Labor has granted $4.5 million to the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF). With that grant, the NRAEF expects to implement a program called Hospitality Opportunities for People (re)Entering Society (HOPES). NRAEF hopes to roll out HOPES over a three-year period in Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois, and Hampton Roads and Richmond, Virginia.

NRAEF envisions training prison releasees in much the same way as the programs discussed above do with near-guaranteed job placement in the four initial locations, eventually expanding across the nation.

NRAEF Vice President of Communications Gordon Lambourne stated that America’s restaurant industry has “one million unfilled jobs.” With 2.5 million prisoners, America has plenty of people to fill them. 


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