Tim Heuisler, an East Coast ambassador for Beam Suntory, was in Cleveland on business and made a dinner reservation at Edwin’s.
Only once he sat down, he quickly ascertained that—despite the fine-dining ambiance and classical-French cuisine—this was not your normal restaurant. The first clue was his waiter.
“Frank was a little rough around the edges, I could tell,” says Heuisler. The waiter began his spiel by talking about the restaurant’s EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, a six-month training program in hospitality and culinary arts for former inmates. “’I don’t like the energy of the kitchen,’ Frank said. He was really into the people aspect of the restaurant.’”
“You could tell it was a passion project,” he says. “The whole experience was much more than dinner. It’s a different style of restaurant management. Part of the pitch, when you sit down to eat, is they tell you about it.” The waiter also shared with Heuisler that Edwin’s is the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Knife Skills.”
How it works is that participants in the program enroll in a three-month-long, back-of-the-house training before moving to the front of the house (host or hostess, wait staff, etc.). They are also provided with free housing and access to clothing, medical care and job coaching.
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While dining at Edwin’s, Heuisler connected with the waiter, on a deeper level, given his own background. “I didn’t go to school but the hospitality industry saved my life,” says Heuisler.
That’s exactly why Edwin’s owner Brandon Chrostowski launched the program—to give people, who lack the degree and connections, a chance to succeed in the industry. In 2004, he began writing a business plan, launching the concept in 2007. He also teaches in local prisons.
“It’s about meeting people where they’re at,” says Chrostowski, who was sentenced to between five and 10 years in prison when he was 18 (later revised to time already served). He served his probation with a chef in Detroit, which led to graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and landing jobs at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and Le Cirque and Chanterelle in New York City, as well as Lucas Carton, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris. “It weighed heavy on me,” he says, about the difficulties some have entering the industry, “and my goal was to build that break for others.”
In 2016, the 20,000-square-foot Life Skills Center campus opened, with space for program participants to live, work and play. A butcher shop was just added and a bakery is next, to further culinary skills and offer opportunities to specialize.
A goal throughout is to prepare participants for more than a fast-food or fast-casual job, starting with the notion that anyone is worthy of an opportunity to work in a fine-dining eatery. “We do it from the top. We teach excellence. We don’t judge,” says Chrostowski. “We just go.”
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Chrostowski sees this as a solution to solving employee shortages in the restaurant industry, which currently makes it hard for owners and managers to fill roles. So far there have been 350 graduates of his program, with a 97 percent employment rate. “Less than one percent have gone back to prison,” says Chrostowski. Some have even gone on to own a restaurant or run a kitchen within a restaurant owned by someone else. “We’ve sent people to Normandy (France), Paris and Chicago,” says Chrostowski. “The majority of people stay in Cleveland.”
It’s the kind of impression that leaves diners like Heuisler true fans. “Cleveland’s one of those ‘under the radar’ cities,” says Heuisler. “But it’s something any city that has a prison should do.”