By Jennifer Kuhel
Not long ago, Leonard Jones found himself walking the downtown streets of Cleveland, his hometown. But he didn’t feel at home. He was empty. He was alone. He was defeated.
Jones had all but given up on himself. The 41-year-old had been in prison several times and felt like a social pariah as a result.
“I couldn’t get a job because of the felonies I had,” Jones says. “People don’t want to believe you can change.” But the kindness of a stranger got Jones off the streets that day and led him to Passages, a Cleveland nonprofit that provides workforce development training, among other services, for formerly incarcerated men and their families. With no money to pay or possessions in hand, Jones began a class at Passages that day. He was also given clothes to wear. But more importantly, he was introduced to someone who believed that Jones could change and do so much more.
Brandon Chrostowski, a 34-year-old restauranteur and advocate for social change, has made it his mission to help men and women, who, like Jones, have been incarcerated and struggle to re-enter the workforce. He is the brains behind EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute, a classic French restaurant in Cleveland’s Shaker Square that’s staffed by the institute’s students — all of whom seek to replace their prior records with Chrostowski’s recipe for success. The nonprofit restaurant opened last November and since then, has earned high praise, both for its cuisine and for its commitment to rehabilitating a group that many employers view as undesirable.
If EDWINS—short for “Education Wins” and a play on Chrostowski’s middle name—is a long-term success, it could change attitudes about employing convicts. The opportunity with EDWINS lies in lowering the recidivism rates: today, nearly one in three convicts returns to prison within three years. Chrostowski wants to provide these men and women with a skilled trade and a structured, safe environment that can keep them out of prison while meeting the needs of a growing food and hospitality industry. Cleveland alone expects to add 1,300 jobs in food and hospitality annually. Considering that an estimated 20,000 of the state’s incarcerated men and women are released each year—one-fifth of whom re-enter Cuyahoga County—the opportunity is clear.
[blocktext align=”left”]If EDWINS is a long-term success, it could change attitudes about employing convicts.[/blocktext]At EDWINS, students like Jones embark on a 26-week program based on training Chrostowski received at his alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. The students meet four times a week and are taken through the rigors of the restaurant business. They learn everything from culinary math to bar tending to hosting to serving to preparing all of EDWINS menu items, including the popular paupiettes de poisson du jour—market fish wrapped in a thin blanket of crispy potatoes. Chrostowski admits that the $200 monthly stipend students receive doesn’t cover much more than transportation and a cup of coffee, but with hard work and dedication, the students earn themselves something far more valuable: a second chance. Just last month, EDWINS graduated its first class of 23 students, 80 percent of whom found jobs as apprentices or serving/cooking in Cleveland restaurants. The balance of students can stay on at EDWINS for a time, as they search for placement.
Chrostowski is empathetic to the realities facing his students. As a teenager, the Detroit native had his own run-ins with the law, but was lucky enough to find a mentor who helped guide his “wild energy” toward culinary school. A family member co-signed on a loan for him to attend the CIA and Chrostowski began to find his way. “I had someone give me a second chance. Everything here was based on the belief that someone believed in me and said, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ Just having that belief and support took me in a whole new direction in life,” he says.
But Chrostowski wasn’t content to use lip service as payment for his gratitude. In 2004, he returned to the CIA for a business degree and to write the business plan for what is now EDWINS. He moved to Cleveland in 2008 to join L’Albatros Brasserie, where he worked for five years as general manager, sommelier, and fromager. In his off time, he began executing his plan, first by starting a culinary class at Grafton Correctional Institution and then renting an office in Little Italy, where he officially founded EDWINS as a 501(c)(3). With the help of numerous volunteers, a board of directors, a crowd funding campaign, Chef Gilbert Brenot, and some lucky breaks, at long last in 2013, Chrostowski signed a five-year lease for a restaurant space in the northwest corner of Shaker Square.
“No one’s done this at this level,” Chrostowski says. “You’re able to dream as big as you want to. Fulfill it with the people and the tools around you. We keep teaching mediocrity, but why not teach to the top? Allow someone to dream big. Give them the tools it takes to travel the world, if they choose to. After this, they can get a job and actually leave—not just go back to a ten to twelve dollars an hour job.” Already, organizations in Florida, Illinois and Kansas have called Chrostowski to see if he can help replicate his plan elsewhere. The short answer is “yes”, but Chrostowski won’t be the one to do it. He’ll gladly share the business plan and is happy to help by phone, but he’s committed to EDWINS. “I signed four extensions in the lease here. I’ll live and die here and I’m content with it. The idea is to make this an epicenter and a model for re-entry,” he says.
Despite his big dreams, Chrostowski remains grounded in the reality of EDWINS students. The fact that 60 students began his program last November and only 23 finished isn’t surprising to him. Many dropped out during the first two weeks of the program when students were bombarded with culinary math. “It was really dry stuff. At that point, it’s about memorization and putting the work in. If someone doesn’t want to memorize, I can’t help them,” he says.
[blocktext align=”right”]”Now I finally feel like I’m a part of something,” says one EDWINS graduate.[/blocktext]Chrostowski also can’t help that many of his students have to return to troubled neighborhoods where temptation looms once they leave EDWINS. Some students left the program because they violated parole and had to return to prison. Others had family to look after. “Life just beats them,” he says. “A lot of our folks come from homeless shelters or they’re an outpatient coming from a substance abuse home and then they go back. So this is an oasis.”
Moving forward, Chrostowski wants his oasis to become a lifeline, as it has for Jones and many of his classmates like Lamarr Gordon, a 59-year-old EDWINS graduate who will begin an apprenticeship at Katz Club Diner in Cleveland Heights. Gordon calls his EDWINS experience “exhilarating.” “Being a felon, it’s hard trying to find a job because that record follows you wherever you go, no matter what,” he explains. “I haven’t been in trouble in more than two years, but because of my record, I couldn’t get a job. Now I finally feel like I’m a part of something. I stuck with it and it’s been a rewarding experience for me.”
Courtney McKinney, a 39-year-old student who plans to graduate in August sees EDWINS as a path toward stability for his wife and seven-year-old son. “I’m doing something now. I’m busy and I’m learning,” he says. McKinney began the program in February and rode his bicycle every day in all weather from his Buckeye home to EDWINS. “Now I have the ability to do something I never saw myself doing. I feel good and I have the chance to make a career.” More importantly, McKinney hopes this experience is memorable for his young son. “It’s good for my kid, when he sees me doing stuff like this. He’ll learn and he’ll become stronger than me mentally.”
While the students are busy gaining culinary skills and building confidence, Chrostowski also keeps close tabs on how his business is faring financially. He knows that his labor cost is high, hovering in the mid-to-upper 30-percent range. Most restaurants operate on labor costs ten percent lower, he says. Still, he wants to extend his current model to a year-long program that meets six days a week and compensates the students more.
[blocktext align=”left”]“You have to build a culture to help things get fixed,” Chrostowski says.[/blocktext]“We’re still on that line of being profitable and unprofitable. But before any expansion can be thought of, we have to get this model streamlined, organized and firing on all cylinders — and that wouldn’t be for five years at any restaurant. Anyone who wants to do it earlier is either foolish of looking for a cash grab. They’re not doing it for the quality and the pride in the cuisine,” he explains.
Moving forward, Chrostowski has plans for student housing nearby with a bakery, fitness center, childcare and possible transport to and from treatment centers. “You have to build a culture to help things get fixed. So someone has to come in here and know that they can be safe and get better,” he says. “We want to help them live a life that’s structured, and a little bit more powerful.”
Today, Leonard Jones is a far cry from where he was just months ago. “I want to enjoy life now. I’ve been cloudy so long that I haven’t had time to see the smells and the tastes. Now I know about different wines and the countries and the soils they come from,” Jones says, looking happy and confident. “Now I feel like I’m in the world. [The students] all have a past, but we don’t ask each other about it because our minds are on the future.”
Photo via edwinsrestaurant.org