The restaurant industry is turning to prisons to find workers

Overly busy restaurant kitchen

JazzIRT / iStock

Overly busy restaurant kitchen

JazzIRT / iStock

A new $4.5 million grant to the National Restaurant Association will go toward training inmates on front-of-house and kitchen skills.

The restaurant industry is turning to prisons to end a labor shortage. 

On Monday, the National Restaurant Association’s philanthropic arm announced it had been awarded a $4.5 million grant from the Department of Labor to develop training programs for incarcerated young adults, and to find them jobs when they’re released.

The trade association’s nonprofit, known officially as the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, will work with local corrections departments, community organizations, and state restaurant associations to create job opportunities in four cities: Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts; and Richmond and Hampton Roads, Virginia.

During incarceration, the participants, who will be between 18 and 22 years old, will receive career and technical education, with additional training during parole and after release, says Jasmine Jones, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit. After the training concludes, the participants will be placed in a local restaurant or foodservice job.

“The restaurant industry is good at second chances,” Jones says. 

With unemployment at a 50-year-low, there aren’t enough people around to take on that low-wage work, and job vacancies are soaring.
The foundation already provides training in those cities to high school students, young adults, and foodservice workers hoping to become front-of-house managers. Overall, the nonprofit spends over $8 million annually on programs for grants, scholarships, and training in the foodservice and hospitality industries, according to a recent tax filing. Its largest source of revenue are the royalties generated by licensing training materials.

Jones says this new program, targeting incarcerated and recently released young people, is an expansion of a preexisting initiative called Restaurant Ready, which supports entry-level training for more than 100 unemployed young adults across the country. In Chicago, that support came in the form of a $10,000 grant and a soft skills curriculum to supplement a culinary program at a local cooking center, says Mattie Young-Burns, who manages the program.

Restaurants who hire former inmates are eligible for tax breaks. But the association says it’s turning to prisons because the industry is suffering a major labor shortage, with over one million unfilled jobs. For the last decade, the restaurant industry has been on a run of historic growth, adding jobs hand over fist. But now, with unemployment at a 50-year-low, there aren’t enough people around to take on that low-wage work, and job vacancies are soaring. That’s led to some unusual approaches to attract and retain employees. Chipotle, for instance, is giving out quarterly bonuses. Church’s Chicken has same-day paychecks. McDonald’s is recruiting through AARP

“The restaurant industry is good at second chances.”
After they’re released, former inmates face unique obstacles in finding jobs. When they apply for jobs, they may be required to reveal their criminal history, which could be disqualifying to an employer. That’s led some states to “ban the box” in job applications. And even though inmates have had prison jobs as cooks for time immemorial, restaurant owners, some say, can be particularly wary. “A lot of the restaurant industry has a very defensive mentality when it comes to hiring,” Leo Kremer, the Dos Toros restaurateur who places formerly incarcerated people in internships, told Eater. “A lot of these old-school restaurants, they’re just really focused on theft.”

Decades of research show that education reduces recidivism. People who take classes while they’re incarcerated are 28 percent less likely to return to prison than other inmates. Nevertheless, it’s not clear that career and technical education, per se, in any field, helps inmates land jobs outside the walls. The most useful trainings allow inmates to secure credentials, such as food service sanitation certificates, that are prerequisites for their industries, says Jenny Vollen-Katz, the executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a Chicago-based prison watchdog.

After this article published, Jones told The New Food Economy that inmates will receive certifications during the training, including a food handlers’ license, and that the program aims to train at least 560 people over the next three years. Some of this training has been in place already, and the new funding will simply help expand and update the programs.

“We see a lot of young men come out of the juvenile justice system … competing for the same jobs,” says Vollen-Katz. “Any time we add opportunities, we’re doing something smart.”

UPDATE, 7/18/2019, 2:20 p.m.: This article has been updated to include additional information from the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, including the age range of program participants, which it previously stated was 16 to 24 years old.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.