Becoming a Second Chance Employer: A New Opportunity for Your Hire and Your Restaurant

By Christie Ison, Foodable Industry Expert

Edwin’s, a French fine dining restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, buzzes each day with plenty of hardworking cooks, servers and other workers. Their secret: an open hiring model that hires on qualifications and motivation rather than criminal history.

While they don’t do a criminal background check, a questionnaire places about 95 percent of their employees as having an “experience with the criminal justice system.”

With 160 covers on Saturdays and annual revenue of nearly $1.3 million, Edwin’s business hasn’t hurt a bit due to their open hiring policy. In fact, founder Brandon Chrostowski said that giving these employees a second chance has added to the heart — and to the bottom line — of the restaurant and to the pride of the community.

Edwin’s operates as a social enterprise with a 6-month training program, campus-style housing, and other support for its employees and students. But Chrostowski, who has recently stepped away from operations at Edwin’s while running for mayor of Cleveland, said that the principles of second-chance hiring are applicable for any restaurateur.

“You’re not managing the person in front of you; you’re managing their potential,” Chrostowski said. “One out of three people have been arrested or had some sort of brush with the law. With that many people, we shouldn’t be afraid of [hiring them] anymore.”

A National Hiring Problem and Opportunity for Restaurants

Restaurants across the nation are experiencing a shortage of talent willing to work the long hours and often arduous tasks required. At the same time, the formerly incarcerated in the U.S. make up a very large population of underemployed workers who are looking for training and employment opportunities.

Madeline Neighly, senior policy advisor on corrections and reentry for The Council of State Governments Justice Center, worked in restaurants herself for many years and saw individuals with difficult backgrounds succeed.

“Particularly back-of-house jobs have been open to people with criminal records,” Neighly said. “It’s such a tight community, a pro-social environment. Restaurants can be key to reintroducing people in a way that’s setting them up for success.”

Chrostowski said the upward mobility within restaurants not only gives all candidates an even playing field, it all hearkens back to our natural instincts to take care of others.

“Hard work doesn’t have a language,” he said. “In this business, if you’re an immigrant, black, white, whatever — if you’re willing to work hard, you can move up and succeed. It’s unique from a lot of other businesses because there’s a natural instinct in us to serve or to provide food, something primitive in us that is attractive to us. It’s embedded in our DNA to serve and nourish.”

Economic Impact of Hiring (or Not Hiring)

Restaurants are often the social and economic hub of a neighborhood, and this also extends into hiring. Neighly says that hiring those with criminal records helps a community’s economy in a number of ways.

“We know that people with criminal records — not just those who were convicted — have much greater economic difficulty in their lives,” Neighly said. “And a felony record has a very large economic consequence on a community and even on the nation’s GDP. Studies have found a significant hit to the GDP related to the unemployment caused by passing over candidates with criminal records.”

Neighly added that restaurants can benefit their communities by hiring these individuals, thereby increasing money spent in a community while raising the individual’s ability to support his or her own family, possibly with less reliance on government support.

Chrostowski said that the neighborhood surrounding the Edwin’s campus has seen visible improvements because of the open-hiring nature of their operation and the pride it has created.

“People were asking me, ‘Why don’t you have bars on your windows?’” Chrostowski said. “And soon you start to see employment and perspectives in the community start to change, and you find them saying, ‘How foolish of me.’ The buildings around us started to get refurbished as well, all starting with this toolbox of personal change.”

Best Practices for Hiring and Interviewing

Neighly offers recommendations that restaurant employers can use to hire more equitably and include those who may have a criminal history.

“What we’re rehearing from employers is that this really works for them, looking at qualifications first and ensuring that you’re not using the person’s record as a proxy for being ‘unqualified,’” Neighly said.

“First look at the qualifications for the job, and look at the nexus of the person’s experience. Then look holistically at the situation. Look at if the offense is related to the job he or she would be doing.”

And if it isn’t, hire them just as you would any other well-qualified candidate.

Chrostowski goes even further, saying Edwin’s never even asks about a criminal record, but agreed that any such questions for indemnity’s sake should be done much later in the interview and with compassion.  

“Sure, for most employers, you have to make sure they’re not a liability,” he said. “But why not save that question (of a criminal record) for the end? And even then, find out how this adds to their life and meet them where they’re at. How does this experience lend to their perspective of doing business or living life?”

Government Programs to Help

In addition to simply hiring good workers who need a chance, there can be financial benefits and protections for restaurants hiring the formerly incarcerated.

The U.S. Department of Labor offers a Federal Bonding Program (FBP) to help alleviate some risk of hiring the underemployed, including those formerly incarcerated but also welfare recipients, those in recovery from substance abuse and individuals with poor credit.  

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor offers a Work Opportunity Tax Credit of up to $9,600 per employee for hiring ex-felons within a year of their date of release.

Many cities and states also offer local incentives to hire ex-convicts and other underemployed persons. Restaurateurs can check with their local workforce services center to find out more.

A Culture of Care

In hiring the formerly incarcerated, Chrostowski said he not only found excellent employees, but those with a pride and passion that came from newfound self-confidence.

“When you help someone fulfill their potential,” he said, “and they’re feeling good about themselves, it creates a growth philosophy that goes across the whole culture, with ideas and energy popping everywhere.

“You gain a culture of care, and that to me is the biggest gain as a whole.”