Ten years ago, Brandon Edwin Chrostowski founded EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute in Cleveland, Ohio. The award-winning French fine-dining restaurant has one unique feature that set them apart from every other food establishment in the country: the entire staff was comprised of men and women who have been incarcerated.
Edwins isn’t only a restaurant, it also teaches its staff basic culinary skills, helps them find housing, provides basic medical care, clothing, job coaching, and offers literacy programs.
With more than 166 students trained, Edwins only has a 1.2 percent rate of re-offenders.
As a reckless teenager (weren’t we all?), Chrostowski was arrested one night and thrown in jail. Instead of a 10 year prison sentence, however, a judge cut him a break and put him on probation. During his probationary period, he met a chef who mentored him. Since that meeting, he’s felt he belonged in the kitchen for the rest of his life.
In a recent Reddit AskMeAnything, the founder dove into the Internet’s most curious questions regarding his institute of second chances.
Here are some things we learned.
Do you have any favorite stories to share about people who have worked at Edwins and have now moved on to other things?
They’re all favorites because our graduates have shown great courage. Lynn graduated in 2016, and has since bought his own hot dog cart, Udi Dogs. He comes by the restaurant every few weeks so the staff and students get to enjoy his food.
I loved being able to send Darwin, our current sous chef, to France, too.
How do you find former inmates for your staff — do they come to you through a referral program or do you post the jobs online, or… something else?
There are a number of different routes. We teach in prison, have connections with local judges, parole officers, etc. We also get good responses from our stories and features in the media.
Why do you think the food service industry is more willing to give people a second chance? I feel like many other industries are not as open to hiring people who are trying to get back in the workforce.
This industry is more forgiving, they are looking for people who work hard, they want people who show up and they are hiring. It’s the perfect opportunity for people to have a second chance.
Can you serve alcohol at your restaurant? If so, are there any challenges w/ your employees?
Yes, we can definitely serve alcohol. If someone is doing a 12-step program or something similar, they don’t necessarily have to work behind the bar. They are required to know the spirits but they don’t have to be around the spirits.
What has been the most negative experience you have had with an employee or applicant?
Attitudes, mostly poor attitudes, coming in with a sense of entitlement.
I’ve been diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder and have a PCL-R score of 33/40. Meaning I’m a psychopath.
A lot of people like me end up going through the prison system. Would you/have you hired someone like me (knowingly)? If so, then what pros/cons do you think there would be/have you noticed?
Yes, you could be part of our program. We have a tough first three weeks to see if you can handle the intensity of the the industry. We have come across many people with different issues and we make sure there is a strong network to support all of them. Your honesty about the situation can make it better and easier, if you are willing to understand the issues you face we will be there to help you through them.
What has been the reaction around Cleveland with you hiring convicts at an upscale restaurant?
Very positive. We’re the pride of CLE. People have really embraced it and they’re quite proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve received national recognition, which highlights how proud CLE is. More than $8 million has come through the doors. It’s been a smashing success.
What reaction did you usually get when you told someone about your idea of starting this program?
You are a fucking idiot, or something similar to that.
What is your most popular dish at the restaurant?
Our most popular dish is the Paupiettes de merou: grouper wrapped in crispy potatoes with haricot verts & beurre rouge. Hope you can come try it sometime if you’re in CLE.
Where do you see Edwins in the next 10, 20 years? How do you hope to expand your mission and brand?
By having the best culinary school in the country and being a civil rights leader for returning citizens. By also continuing to do what we’re doing already.
The campus was first, the building for the butcher shop is ready, after that it will be a bakery, cheese shop, etc. We’re isolating each one of the skills in the school and teaching in a real world environment.
We are affecting every aspect — the culinary aspect and the school aspect. We’re also teaching a culinary program in all state prisons. The fact cannot be denied that every human being deserves a fair and equal second chance.
Note: The AMA has been edited for spelling and flow. Photos: Edwins Facebook