Food industry can be an entry point for ex-cons seeking to build a new life

Having spent most of his adult life trapped in a vicious cycle between jail and the hustle of the drug trade, Julius Drake got an expected wake-up call in the form of the kitchen spoon to the back of the head.

He was working in the kitchen at the Allegheny County Jail while incarcerated there, when a woman from his neighborhood, a jail employee who worked in food service, bopped him with a spoon and told him he should pay attention. By virtue of working in the kitchen he was developing a trade, and he didn’t even realize it.

“I was doing meal prep for 2,500 people a day — for free,” he said noting that he’d always had a passion for cooking. But the light never went off that while in jail he was learning career skills.

In 2014, the Allegheny County Jail Re-Entry program connected Drake — at age 42 — with Community Kitchen, a Hazelwood-based nonprofit that provides a culinary education to people with barriers to employment, often ex-offenders.

He completed their program and went to work. The Homewood resident is now the sous chef at Buford‘s Kitchen, across from the PPG Paints Arena.

“I made a commitment to them and to myself, and it’s been working ever since,” he said.

Drake shared his story Thursday evening during a panel discussion titled “Prison and Plates.” Put on by Repair the World, a national service organization with a local office in East Liberty, the focus was on connecting ex-offenders and at-risk youth with employment opportunities in food service and the culinary world. Mr. Drake spoke along with staff from with Amachi, a faith-based mentorship organization that helps families with an incarcerated loved one, and Josh Inklovich of FIT Farms in Garfield.

One barrier to employment that was brought up was the inability for some ex-offenders, particularly those with drug offenses or an inability to pay fines, to either obtain a driver’s license or to have a lengthy suspension — sometimes for years. There is bipartisan support in Harrisburg to eliminate these penalties. Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Jefferson HIlls, has introduced legislation to do away with with the mandatory suspensions for drug offenders who have completed their sentences, and Rep. Jake Wheatley Jr., D-Hill District, has introduced a bill that would allow for amnesty to convicts who cannot pay their fines to be able to get a license. 

That exact scenario — a license suspension because of an inability to pay fines has dogged Anthony Parks, who also shared his story. The 52-year-old from Highland Park had worked in local kitchens from McDonald’s to the Grand Concourse at Station Square throughout his life, but he was also caught in a revolving door of incarceration.

During a recent brief stretch he decided he had had enough.

“I was in jail only two months, but I was determined to change,” he said.

He was connected with Jordan Robarge, a 24-year-old transplant from Falls Church, Va., who’d come to Pittsburgh as a fellow with Venture for America, a nonprofit that encourages entrepreneurship in 18 American cities. Mr. Robarge was starting Revival Chili: a food truck, making chili recipes he’d perfected while a student at the University of Virginia. The unique twist is that he’ll hire and train ex-cons and get them to a point of expertise running the business that they can be given seed money to start their own food truck.

“When you have good people around you, you can do good things. The thing is — how do you do that?” he said, illustrating the challenges those with a criminal record face when seeking employment.  

Parks went to work for Mr. Robarge, and they completed their first successful season with the Revival Chili mobile food trailer. They are working on securing a brick and mortar location in Mt. Oliver to open next year, which Parks will run.

Parks said that this experience has not only helped him find direction for his life going forward, also but it’s helped him repair relationships in his own family. 

“It means so much to hear from your kids that they’re proud of you.” 

Dan Gigler:; Twitter @gigs412


Hot Topic