Zane Tankel knows what it means to have a second chance.
The now-75 year old remembers growing up in a tough neighborhood in Patterson, New Jersey. A self-described “tough guy,” Tankel regularly skipped school, learning to fight, steal, and intimidate. “I went away for a little while as a kid,” he admits.
When he returned, Tankel was able to refocus his strength and energy, becoming a two-time state wrestling champion, and later earning an economics degree from the prestigious Wharton School. He obtained a black belt in karate and climbed Mount Everest, all while running a successful printing business in New York City. And when this excitement failed to completely occupy him, Tankel and a partner entered the restaurant business, opening an Applebee’s on Staten Island in 1994.
Today, Tankel is the CEO of Apple-Metro, which operates 36 Applebee’s in the Greater New York City area. But he has never forgotten the importance of that second chance he had to redefine himself. And it is for this reason that he now provides opportunities for former prisoners to change the trajectories of their lives by working in his restaurants.
In an article in Forbes magazine, Tankel talks about his commitment to hire formerly incarcerated men and women. Encouraged by one of his managers to employ ex-prisoners, Tankel enthusiastically jumped in, placing a dozen such individuals in one of his restaurants. And even when that first attempt failed to turn out as intended (every member of that first group ended up back in prison, with one of those individuals stealing from work), subsequent hires have proven to be productive and trusted employees.
Marcus Benbow is one of several success stories featured in the Forbes article. The former Bloods gang member was committed to staying out of prison and gaining custody of two of his daughters, but was struggling to make due with occasional odd jobs, along with the temptation to return to the life he had known.
The chance to work at one of Tankel’s restaurants was just the opportunity Benbow needed. “I started as a broil cook, and from there, it seemed like the world just opened up,” he says.
Today, Benbow is an assistant kitchen manager, and is in line for promotion to kitchen manager. “If it wasn’t for that day at Applebee’s, walking into that open house, and getting that job, who knows where I’d have been,” he says. “I didn’t have custody of my kids at that point. So, going to court, knowing that I had a stable job … probably eight months after that, they gave me full custody, so that’s why I say Applebee’s saved my life.”
Tenkel describes his commitment to hiring the formerly incarcerated in the form of a story:
So, this guy was walking down the beach, and as this guy is walking, this dot seems to be moving towards him. And as he gets closer, he sees it’s a man. … And he’s reaching down and he’s throwing something into the ocean. And they’re getting closer, and this guy’s going every three feet, reaching down, and throwing something into the ocean. They get closer, and now they’re face-to-face, and he asks, “Excuse me, sir—I saw you from as far as the eye can see, and you keep reaching down and throwing something into the ocean. What is it you’re doing?”
He said, “Oh, when the tide comes in, it washes all the starfish up on the shore, and when the tide goes out, they’re left there, so I go down the shore and I throw them back in the water.”
This guy starts laughing and guffawing, and he thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world. “But there are millions of starfish,” he says, as the guy throws another one.
“Yeah,” he replies, “But tell it to that one.”
Every year more than 650,000 men and women return to their communities after a period of incarceration. Within three years, two-thirds of those individuals are rearrested. Having a steady job and a place to live, as well proper pre-release instruction and support after leaving prison, are key to enabling prisoners to become productive and contributing members of society.
Prison Fellowship is working to reduce recidivism rates. Through in-prison programming and mentoring, lessons about personal responsibility and hard work are combined with spiritual development, as well as practical advice about life outside prison walls. After release, Prison Fellowship equips local churches to welcome these men and women into their communities, offering them the support and encouragement to face the challenges and temptations before them.
To learn more about how Prison Fellowship prepares men and women for reentry, click here.