At EDWINS, Every Person, Regardless of Their Past, Has the Right to a Fair and Equal Future
A teenaged Brandon Chrostowski stood before a judge. He was facing a 10-year sentence on a drug-related felony charge.
He couldn't believe what happened next: the judge let him off with probation.
Just like that, Brandon had a decade of his life back. The way he sees it, he's on borrowed time, so he had better make the most of it.
He has. Today, Brandon is the owner and founder of EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute. EDWINS is a fine-dining restaurant in the French tradition that has received recognition from The New York Times and has been called one of the best new restaurants in Cleveland by Scene magazine and Eater.com.
FINE DINING—WITH A TWIST
EDWINS is special. But not just because of its food, delicious as it may be. It's the people behind the food that make the French restaurant unique: The entire staff is made up of formerly incarcerated men and women.
Since 2004, Brandon has been going into Ohio prisons and teaching incarcerated men and women culinary and hospitality skills. These men and women needed somewhere to go after they were released, but few businesses will hire people with a criminal record.
"There's this perception that someone coming out of prison is discounted, is less than, is not equal to someone else," he says.
Yet to Brandon, these men and women were worth the risk.
"The idea behind EDWINS is to drive home the idea that every human being, regardless of their past, has a right to a fair and equal future," Brandon says.
"So, the idea was to carve out a mission for a nonprofit that is committed to giving people a second chance and developing their careers and their dreams as humans. But the overarching vision is to make sure we change the societal perception of former prisoners re-entering society."
Brandon left his career in high-profile restaurants to open EDWINS and the EDWINS Leadership Institute.
The institute trains men and women for work in the restaurant and is open to anyone serving time in or recently released from prison. The Leadership Institute includes 20-plus hours of classes. Once they graduate, former prisoners can work at EDWINS or seek employment in another restaurant.
Where does this drive to see former prisoners succeed come from? "Well, it's just the fruit of hitting bottom enough to know what that feels like," Brandon says.
What started as an 85-seat restaurant has become a 20,000-square-foot campus. In addition to the classes now running inside 13 Ohio prisons, there’s an apartment building where about 30 students can live for free. Living there gives students access to a fitness center, a library, a test kitchen, and a thrift store where every price tag reads $0.
Then there's EDWINS Butcher Shop. Brandon says they're beginning work on opening a new butcher shop to supply EDWINS and serve the public through a walk-in style store. The butcher shop is part of a larger vision to revitalize the neighborhood around EDWINS and the apartment building.
Revitalizing the neighborhood makes sense considering EDWINS already revitalizes people. Brandon and his team go to great lengths to take care of the former prisoners in the program.
He says, "[We have a] case manager here in case someone's going through some difficulties. We're going to help you get beyond those obstacles. We know that if we can just block and tackle for someone in our program, then in six months we'll see their esteem strengthened, their skill sets strengthened. And then they'll start to see that the rest of their life can be what they hoped it could be."
HELPING FORMER PRISONERS FIND HOPE
Hundreds of men and women are discovering what Brandon means. More than 250 formerly incarcerated people have graduated from EDWINS Leadership Institute since the program was launched in 2007. That means there are 260 success stories to inspire and motivate prospective and current students. With a recidivism rate of less than 1.5 percent—meaning only two or three people who started the program have returned to prison—there's plenty for future students to look forward to.
In addition to the 260+ graduates of EDWINS Leadership Institute, one filmmaker convinced Brandon to let him show what's happening at EDWINS to a larger audience. The result was the Oscar-nominated documentary Knife Skills, which chronicles the days leading up to EDWINS' opening through the eyes of Brandon and his teammates.
And it's having an effect. Brandon says it's helping people in tough spots realize "maybe tomorrow's not the end. There's something in the future. And as told through the stories of the students, I think people can believe that. We screened it in prisons and people were very moved by the film. It's affected a lot of people."
So has Brandon, who doesn’t plan to stop serving up second chances any time soon.