It took five stints in prison for Jameel Hasan to realize he needed to make a change.
The first time he was locked up at age 19 for a theft charge, “it seemed like somewhat of a joke,” Hasan said.
But a 12-month sentence in 2009 for forgery? Not so much.
“Forty-two years old, I got to do something different with myself,” Hasan, of south Columbus, recalled thinking. “I don’t want my (four) kids to see me in and out of the streets.”
Though he was seeking work after his release in 2010, his criminal record — five felony convictions in 22 years, according to Franklin County court records — made it difficult.
“It’s discouraging,” he said. “You lose hope.”
Then last fall he heard about Hot Chicken Takeover. The budding business on the second floor of the North Market had become a bright spot in Columbus’ culinary scene for its take on Nashville’s famous spicy chicken.
But Hasan was more interested in who the fast-service, casual restaurant employed: prior-offenders, the homeless, and anyone who might otherwise face a barrier to employment.
“When they finally called me in for the interviews: (I was) overjoyed,” Hasan said. “At the same time, it was in the back of my head that I’d get turned away again.”
Owner Joe DeLoss doesn’t turn people away. He gives them a second chance.
Hasan was hired in December.
But take it from DeLoss: He’s not running a charity.
Instead, he’s tapping into an oft-overlooked and valuable employment pool, he said. One that includes people eager to prove themselves, to contribute.
More than half of his 50 employees have a criminal record, he said.
“(My employees) work incredibly hard, serve a tremendous amount of guests and do it with a smile on their face,” DeLoss said.
He’s not the first Ohio restaurant owner to find success with the business model, and proponents of the hiring practice hope other employers take note of the advantages it offers. Officials with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, likewise, have also ramped up efforts to both prepare inmates for re-entry into the community and also to demystify the stigma many employers may associate with felons.
“We have found several business entities who are willing to talk and engage with these men and women returning to the community,” said Michael Davis, the bureau chief in the office of re-entry and enterprise development. “Our experience is they’ve been pleased with the results.”
Started in 2012, reintegration units are the most recent effort. About 12 units are located throughout the state, offering programs to prepare inmates for life beyond bars, whether it be job training, fiscal responsibility, or housing training.
“You can’t underestimate the power of hope; hope for a better tomorrow,” said Davis, an official for the ODRC. “They’re an example to their children and examples to all of us about the resiliency of the human spirit.”
Such success is underscored by Brandon Chrostowski, who founded Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute in Cleveland in 2013. His mission: to offer a six-month training program to prior-offenders interested in becoming chefs.
He has graduated 130 people since opening, and he has 50 Ohio restaurants on a waiting list to hire his students.
Not one of the grads has been a repeat offender, he said. Compare that with the 28 percent recidivism rate throughout the state.
“We’re showing that when you give someone an equal opportunity, anything is possible,” Chrostowski said. “We can no longer look at someone’s criminal past and say ‘no.’ “
The restaurant industry is particularly suited for prior offenders, Chrostowski said, because a criminal record doesn’t bar one from employment as do jobs in, say, education or public service.
Instead, the industry simply rewards anyone willing to work hard.
“There’s a lot of pros that come out of someone who’s a con,” said Chrostowski, half of whose own staff are prior offenders.
DeLoss also boasts a 50-percent retention rate in an industry that typically sees a high turnover in employment.
They stay, he said, because of the community his team fosters as well as the benefits DeLoss offers including financial-literacy programs, private counseling and other professional-development initiatives.
DeLoss, a Gahanna native, began his career as a bank analyst before transitioning to the workforce-development field.
When he and his wife took a trip to Nashville a few years ago, they fell in love with the hot chicken, and he decided to bring the cuisine back to Columbus.
“I believe we create an experience that’s really representative of Columbus itself,” said DeLoss, 31, who now lives in the South Side neighborhood of Merion Village with his wife and their two young daughters. “It’s inclusive, it’s exciting.”
DeLoss’ business began in April 2014 as a food truck around Olde Towne East. That December, he moved Hot Chicken Takeover intothe North Market space.
Since then, its popularity has taken off.
When Hasan began working at Hot Chicken Takeover, his entry position was the same for anyone else at DeLoss’ restaurant. He washed dishes.
From there, employees grow into other roles, whether it be as a cashier, a cook or “you name it,” DeLoss said. The approach gives everyone a shared experience, and a way to grow.
“It felt easy to come here,” said Hasan, now a fryer. “I like it here; I love it here.”
Much of that love is tied to the camaraderie among the employees, many of whom share similar backgrounds and struggles.
“We’re a family,” said Alexis Thompkins, 45, who has worked for Hot Chicken for eight months.
Thompkins had been out of work for nine years, much of it willingly as she decided to dedicate her time to raising her two sons and keeping them from falling prey to gangs that rove her East Side neighborhood.
But with the youngest boy’s father out of the picture, the family fell on hard times; Thompkins struggled with drugs, became homeless and was jailed in 2006 on a forgery charge — she had written a fake phone number on a bill so she could cash a check to pay for a motel room for her and her children.
Although she avoided prison — instead receiving probation — six days spent in jail following her arrest was enough to wake her up; she got clean and began looking for work.
Because of her employment gap, many places turned her down. She heard of Hot Chicken Takeover through her church’s community dinner, and applied.
“It’s an opportunity for me to learn everything I need to learn in order for me to get to where I need to go,” said Thompkins, who has dreams of owning a bakery one day. “My life has been on hold for so many years.”
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