Dinner at Edwins: Fine-dining French restaurant giving former criminals a second chance

Team members from Edwins. Source: Facebook

It’s believed that Edwins, a French restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio that opened in 2013, is the only high-end restaurant in the United States where ex-offenders make up the majority of the staff.

And in addition to serving up delicious examples of French cuisine, these former criminals are learning valuable skills to help them get a second chance in life.

What makes this story even sweeter is that of the 200 plus students that have gone through their six-month rotation at Edwins over the past few years, not one has re-offended, and over 90% of them have gained permanent employment – an amazing result and one that will hopefully inspire other restaurateurs to follow suit.

The restaurant opened in 2013 and was inspired by the passion of owner Brandon Chrostowski. He wanted to give former criminals a chance that they otherwise might not have, and he did it because he’d also had a run in with the law in his younger days.

As Chrostowski said in an interview back when the restaurant was opened: “I was a reckless teenager, and one night, I was arrested and thrown in jail. Fortunately, I had a judge who gave me a break instead of 10 years in prison. While I was on probation, I met a chef who mentored me –and once I was in that kitchen, I knew that’s where I belonged for the rest of my life.”

During the day, the former offenders at Edwins are given culinary training and lectures involving wine education and food prep. During the evening dinner service, the employees use these lessons, cooking for actual paying customers.

Edwins provides 40-50 hours of training each week for six months. Students receive a weekly payment for their services, as well as a portion of the donations left by diners in lieu of tips. A full-time caseworker helps them with housing, counselling or getting a driver’s license.

As Chrostowski told journalists: “Edwins is a family. There’s a spirit in here where we’re in this together. To have a second chance is to have a new life. And if you’re ready to work hard, you can change the stars.”

It’s impossible to overstate the effect that the program – which is now entering its fourth year – has had on the former criminals who have taken part. The statistics speak for themselves: over 200 have completed their six month rotation since Edwins opened in 2013, and there’s been no record of any re-offending.

Going even further to make a positive difference, Chrostowski launched a dormitory for his employees when he saw that not having decent, affordable housing kept many of his students from achieving stability. “Seeing how hard we’re pushing, and how little they had, I was sick,” he said. “I said, ‘We’re going to fix it.’ ”

He raised over $1 million to purchase and renovate three dilapidated buildings to house employees. Chrostowski was recently honored as a recipient of the 2016 CNN Heroes Award. It’s a fitting tribute to the man who has given back so much to the community, and particularly to those who he has given a very rare second chance to.

“The long-term goal of Edwins is to build the best culinary center in the world based on people just coming out of prison,” Chrostowski told journalists. With the results already achieved, it would appear that the goal is well on the way to being achieved.