Second Chances: Crossroads in the Kitchen
People working to overcome substance abuse problems and ex-offenders discover a welcoming environment in restaurant kitchens.
Heather Nally, 43, is taking a break at a table in The Other Diner, her 1,000-square-foot diner, which she opened in August in Arlington. This is Nally’s second restaurant; the first, also small, aptly is called Micro Diner, which she debuted in 2012. She serves simple fare at both spots — think eggs, sandwiches, burgers and salads — but the spaces also serve a higher purpose for Nally and most of her 14 employees.
Nally struggled with addictions to crack and heroin and was incarcerated multiple times for robbery, forgery and fraud. She attempted to clean up her life by participating in the Program for Female Offenders in 2001 but relapsed. “Consequences. You just get tired. Tired of getting locked up. Tired of answering to so many people controlling your life. You get tired,” she says.
In 2007, while living in a halfway house in Butler, she had a spiritual epiphany and decided to change her life, this time with better results.
“Negative behavior will lead you to hate yourself, which will lead you to want to numb yourself. It’s all behavior. The drugs are the last resort,” Nally says.
“But,” she adds, “anyone can change.”
Jobs in restaurant kitchens are physically demanding, the hours are difficult and the social bonding between staff members often includes late-night partying. Still, by providing a reliable income, a steady schedule and a sense of self-worth, a restaurant can be a gateway to stability for people who are transitioning from incarceration, recovering from substance abuse problems, and, in many cases, both.
For restaurant owners at establishments ranging from pint-sized kitchens such as Scratch Food & Beverage, a neighborhood restaurant serving thoughtful comfort food in Troy Hill, to the ever-expanding empire of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group, which runs some of Pittsburgh’s most visible and popular Downtown restaurants, vocational training and post-incarceration employment programs tap into a fresh labor force as rapid restaurant expansion in Pittsburgh translates into a shortage of employees.
The restaurant industry is the region’s largest field of employment. According to a recent study published by market analytics company Emsi, there were 87,300 restaurant industry jobs available in 2016, and 25 percent of new jobs in Pittsburgh from 2010 to 2016 were in the restaurant industry. That number is expected to grow as the city expands. “Everyone I talk to is desperate for people to work in their kitchens,” says Jamilka Borges, executive chef of Spoon in East Liberty.
“You get such a bad rap [when you’re a recovering addict]. But, over time, that changes. That person has to want to restart their life. That’s what it comes down to.”
“I’ve never had a good job before. Now, I want to land a job that pays well. If you put your experiences of what you learn [here] together, you should be able to get that good job,” says Shimica, 41, a recovering addict currently on probation after serving a three-year sentence for criminal trespassing.
She is one of four ex-offenders presenting a weekly showcase lunch prepared for invited guests assembled on a bright September afternoon in Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s new two-floor facility in Hazelwood. Like Nally, they are part of a community of Pittsburgh-area residents who, because of addiction, incarceration and other circumstances, find themselves at a crossroads.
Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, a food-focused vocational program that launched in 2013, is part of a national network of Catalyst Kitchen programs that have a shared goal of helping disenfranchised people rebuild their lives by training them in the culinary arts, as well as providing them with the heretofore-lacking tools to navigate the complexities of government and social infrastructure.
(All last names are withheld at the request of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh.)
Shimica serves bread pudding laced with spices. “I love to make people smile,” she says. “People know when you put your heart into it.”
Mike, 40, took the main course, a soulful gumbo straight out of Cajun country. “I’m loving this experience,” he says as colleagues and invited guests dig into their bowls. Scott, 38, and Shakeya, 23, round out the meal with an eggplant-bacon bake and a salad with homemade dressing.
“There are a lot of people who are ready and willing to work, but they have barriers [to employment] or nothing on their resumes. They need support and assistance to get over that,” says Community Kitchen Pittsburgh Executive Director Jennifer Flanagan.
If everything goes as intended, the four who presented in September will join the scores of graduates from 20-plus previous classes who now are working in the restaurant industry. With the assistance of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh staff, they’ll apply for jobs with one of the more than 80 partner organizations, working at restaurants such as Casbah, BRGR, Whitfield and Scratch Food & Beverage, and also in institutional kitchens such as Aramark, Carnegie Mellon University and various hospitals throughout the region.
“We’re targeting folks who are currently outside the economy, and we’re working to bring them back in,” Flanagan says.
The core of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s programming is a 12-week, full-time and fully immersive culinary training program. The first two weeks are classroom learning about food safety and sanitation. After week one, participants earn a ServSafe food handler certification, an accreditation that allows them to work in Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s commercial kitchen.
After that, it’s initial culinary training with Darryl “Chef D” Coaston, an early graduate of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. Chef D teaches the basics — knife skills, measurements and how to work efficiently. Most participants begin that part of the training program with little or no formal cooking experience.
“I’m really good at dicing and cutting. I caught on quickly. You need to make the right moves so that you don’t cut your fingers. But once you get a rhythm going you can move fast,” Shimica says, adding that she’s less enthusiastic about another fundamental kitchen duty that’s taught during Tier One — doing the dishes.
When participants are ready, they move to Tier Two — hands-on meal preparation. During this phase, the Community Kitchen Pittsburgh cohort prepares up to 1,500 meals per day for four Pittsburgh-area schools (Environmental Charter School, Urban Academy, Holy Family Academy and Urban Pathways Charter School), makes afterschool snacks and dinner for Propel Schools and three full-time shelters, as well as meals for seasonal accommodations in the winter.
“This is the first time I’m cooking big meals every day. It’s challenging, but I’m loving this experience,” says Mike. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy going.
Nearly all Community Kitchen Pittsburgh participants are attending the program while dealing with significant personal and professional barriers. Community Kitchen Pittsburgh addresses those barriers with non-culinary education such as resume writing, interview skills and conflict-management solutions. Clients also are offered cognitive-behavioral therapy, and, prior to graduation, needs such as childcare during employment hours are taken into consideration.
“We want people to leave feeling like they are part of a professional network and have the skills many of us take for granted,” Flanagan says.
Even if all of the systems are in place, working in the restaurant industry poses challenges for individuals aiming to restructure their lives. Foremost is that kitchen jobs, historically, attracted those already on the fringes. There’s a long history of embracing the behavior that got many people in trouble in the first place.
“If you were too high, or too weird, or too messed up, this is where you’d go. It’s less like that now, but I’m sure if you’re clean it’s hard to [adjust] into these environments,” says Bill Fuller, corporate chef of big Burrito Restaurant Group, a large restaurant company that works with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh as well as halfway houses operated by organizations such as Renewal, Inc.
Cooking in restaurants increasingly is viewed as a respectable, even esteemed, career choice, but the culture hasn’t yet caught up with the hype.
“There’s no other industry that [celebrates] alcohol, drugs, partying and running yourself into the ground as much as cooking,” says Borges.
On top of that, the current opioid epidemic has hit western Pennsylvania and the surrounding areas particularly hard. Owners and staff note that in the past year there have been overdoses at Pittsburgh restaurants while people were on-shift and later at their homes after shifts; people would have died had it not been for harm-reduction applications such as the use of the lifesaving drug Narcan. Although these overdoses weren’t limited to individuals from transitional organizations, most of those who are employed through them are in recovery.
“The opioid crisis is bringing everything to the surface. But drug and alcohol issues have been around a long time,” says Douglas C. Williams, president and CEO of Renewal.
Renewal was founded in 1958. The organization works with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and Allegheny County Jail, offering 650 beds in Downtown as part of a treatment and residential work-release program for persons convicted of crimes. Renewal partners with more than 65 employers in fields such as construction, roofing, technology and food service.
Organizations and restaurants work to build structural frameworks to prevent relapse. Renewal, for example, won’t place someone in early stages of treatment or with a significant history of relapse in a restaurant that serves alcohol; sometimes they will even make sure that a client doesn’t have to walk by a bunch of bars on their way home from work. Working the day shift isn’t always an option, but those hours, in general, provide less opportunity for temptation.
Other advantages that both clients and employers of second-chance organizations have is that drug testing is a standard and further rehabilitation is part of the game even if a person falters. “If the employer is willing, we reach out to get their view of what happened. Then we bring the person in, debrief them and help them to find another job,” says Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s Flanagan.
“This is the reality. There is an opioid epidemic. There is an alcohol problem. There is a cocaine problem. And all of those things are amplified in this particular environment. You have to change the culture. You can’t sit back and say, ‘Oh, woe is me,’” says Don Mahaney, owner of Scratch Food & Beverage in Troy Hill.
People entering the workforce from probational and vocational programs face other challenges.
“People go through these programs because their lives have been pretty awful up to this point. A lot of them haven’t learned basic life-skills like how to show up for work, or how to listen and not be angry when your supervisor assigns you to do a task,” says Fuller.
That’s been an issue at Scratch, where a cook from Community Kitchen Pittsburgh who was building a reputation as a reliable and hard-working member of the kitchen team fell off the rails when he was moved from a prep-cook position to working a flat-top grill on the hot-line. “He had the skills necessary to do this. He just lacked the confidence to deal with this particular situation. Stressful, rapid change, happens in [a restaurant] kitchen, and we hadn’t prepared him for that,” Mahaney says, adding he felt he lacked the proper skill set to support the cook through the transition.
Chefs are looking for solutions. Creating an atmosphere that rejects the machismo of the brigade system and instead fosters positive and supportive communication creates a more stable workforce. For example, big Burrito Restaurant Group is leading a charge to limit working hours to between 40 and 50 per week, down from as many as 70 hours, something that will allow employees time to physically and mentally recover from the demands of working in a restaurant kitchen. Offering health insurance, discounts on gym memberships and suggesting group activities that don’t involve drinking all help.
And while reporting relapsed behavior is imperative, continued reinforcement of positive individual behavior is, too. “This happens over time. You build yourself up. You start believing you can do things. I don’t need a man because I can take care of myself. I don’t need things — drugs, money, alcohol — to ‘fix’ me. I can do that for myself,” says Nally.
“[Cooking] helped save my life. I tried other times to turn my life around but didn’t have anything to look forward to. This time I have something positive …”
Kitchen skills, such as those learned at Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, if applied diligently, are in high demand.
“We run ads [in local publications] every day trying to find people. And, for the last year and a half, we’ve run ads nationally, too,” says Tolga Sevdik, director of operations and partner at the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group.
His company operates Meat & Potatoes, Butcher and the Rye, täkō and Pork & Beans, four of the buzziest and busiest restaurants in Pittsburgh. This year they’re doubling down, with plans to open an additional four establishments. “We’re going to need a lot of people,” Sevdik says, noting that the new restaurants will add 80-plus back-of-house jobs to their current roster of 90 kitchen staff.
“We have to be very careful with out-placements. We want to make sure they are successes,” says Renewal’s Williams.
Renewal aims for people in its care to work 40 hours per week, though that number might be reduced if an individual isn’t yet physically or mentally capable, or if they are in enrolled in school. There are federal tax credits available to employers who hire Renewal reentrants. More importantly, the organization pre-screens potential hires, most of whom have faced difficult backgrounds and have challenging work histories.
“That screening is important. We want to be sure we get the right people,” says Sevdik. Beyond that, they don’t ask a lot of questions.
That response is echoed by many managers in charge of hiring back of house staff. “People make mistakes. Things happen. I don’t need to know how you ended up here,” says Borges of Spoon. “If there’s any industry that can provide a chance for people, it’s cooking.”
Mahaney, owner of Scratch, believes that a well-structured training program for both trainee and the host site can help potential employees learn the skills that will benefit both his kitchen and the broader community of Pittsburgh restaurants. To that end, he’s worked with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh to provide weeklong stages, during which a prospective employee would get first-hand experience working in the kitchen, and developed an extended, 12-week post-graduation curriculum that he hopes to implement, with some refinements, in the future. “Let’s see if we can push the training program to another level and get people the kitchen experience that’s difficult to get in a structured environment,” he says.
Sometimes, pieces don’t fall together, and a person won’t find a career in the kitchen. “They are trying to do the best they can. Some of them will bind to it and some won’t. But that’s like every other cook you find. The negative (of working with halfway houses) is minimal compared to the positive,” says Borges.
Nally of Micro Diner and The Other Place knew she wanted to change but didn’t have the confidence or self-worth to do it. So she went to beauty school. “I didn’t care if I ever cut hair a day in my life. I just wanted to do something and complete it. Before that, as soon as the newness wore off, I’d quit,” she says.
Nally finished beauty school, got her first credit card and set out to work. But somehow the culinary bug caught her — even though she admits she doesn’t like to cook — and she decided to open a diner. Banks turned her down for loans, but the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) believed in her enough to give her a loan for $29,000; she paid the five-year loan back in two years. More important, she says, friends saw Nally’s life turning around. “People came out of the woodwork to support me,” she says.
That includes both financial support — a childhood friend would eventually purchase the building; she and Nally now are 50/50 partners — as well as friends who could teach her accounting, back-of-house management, business planning and other skills necessary for restaurant operations.
“I put myself around people who knew more than me. And I listened, just like I did in recovery,” she says.
Now, Nally is the person with the opportunity to turn people’s lives around. Most of the people she hires are from Renewal.
“It doesn’t work out with everybody, but I always give them a chance. Addicts are the best workers when they are clean,” she says. “You get such a bad rap [when you’re a recovering addict]. But, over time, that changes. That person has to want to restart their life. That’s what it comes down to.”
Julius Drake, 45, also restarted his life. He is the supervisor of Buford’s Kitchen Downtown, where he oversees up to eight people who prepare and cook for the Southern-themed restaurant. He’s been there for a year and prior to that worked in a handful of other restaurants.
It’s a far cry from his previous life. “Oh you name it, and I did it. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of,” he says.
Drake started cooking while incarcerated and hooked up with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh in 2014 as part of a re-entry program from Allegheny County Jail. He says he keeps in touch with many in his cohort; all are working in the culinary field.
“It helped save my life,” he says. “I tried other times to turn my life around but didn’t have anything to look forward to. This time I have something positive to do fresh out of jail, and so I didn’t fall back on my previous behavior.”
“This has saved my life,” says Shimica, the Community Kitchen Pittsburgh client who cooked bread pudding in September.
She graduated from the program in December and now is clearing some final bureaucratic hurdles in order to land a job. Scott, who graduated in November, now is earning $12.50 an hour working full-time for a local catering company.
A few weeks after preparing his gumbo, Mike stopped showing up for training at Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. He relapsed, and despite the efforts of Flanagan and her staff, they have lost track of him. Even in the best Catalyst Kitchen programs, and Community Kitchen Pittsburgh ranks among those, up to 25 percent of participants don’t make it through.
The program doesn’t give up when there are setbacks though. Shakeya spent the autumn jumping through hurdles in her personal life, pushing back her expected graduation date a few months. She is on-track to complete the cirriculum and currently is interviewing for jobs.
“The hopelessness and desperation I was feeling three years ago was overwhelming. And now to be safe and sound, and take care of a family, that’s beyond my vocabulary,” says Gaston of Buford’s Kitchen.
“You get such a bad rap [when you’re a person in recovery],” Nally says. “But, over time, that changes. It’s about following directions and believing you are worthy. And we are all worthy.”