Kitchen training guarantees Ohio inmates jobs

DAN HORN The Cincinnati Enquirer Published:

CINCINNATI (AP) -- The kitchen smells and sounds like any other fast-food joint: Burgers sizzle on the grill. Fries sit in baskets above bubbling oil. The cook barks orders and twirls his spatula.

"Get me a plate!"

"Drop those fries!"

But these aren't typical waiters and short-order cooks. They're convicted felons, drug addicts and non-violent offenders, doing time at River City Correction Facility.

Every Thursday afternoon -- "Frisch's Day," as it's known here -- more than a dozen River City residents go to work in the kitchen to learn skills they hope will land them a job when they're released.

The groundbreaking program is another side to Frisch's, the Cincinnati-based company known more for its Big Boy and fish sandwiches. For 15 years, the restaurant chain has teamed up with River City to train more than 150 offenders a year.

All are guaranteed jobs after their release if they stay out of trouble and can competently flip burgers and deep-fry frozen potatoes.

While most businesses are less likely to hire people with criminal records, Frisch's takes a different approach. Its management says the River City program is important community outreach, focused on setting people on the right path rather than filling their own kitchens with workers.

About 70 percent of graduates are no longer at Frisch's six months after their release. Some go to other restaurants or to better jobs elsewhere. About 30 percent return to jail or prison within two years.

"Here, they get all the attention they need," said Lamont Taylor, Frisch's human resources manager. "When they get out, it's up to the individual."

For convicted felons, most with a history of drug addiction, the chance to learn some basic skills, even for an $8-an-hour job, is welcome. Studies over the past decade have found their unemployment rate is as much as 23 percent higher than the population as a whole.

"I think it will be difficult to find a felony-friendly job," said Tara Johnson, a trainee who got hooked on heroin and landed in River City after a burglary conviction.

Part-jail, part-treatment center, River City seemed a good test case for a jobs program for non-violent offenders with drug problems, executive director John Baron said.

He uses the program as part of his get-your-act-together conversation with every new arrival at River City.

"We're going to give you the tools you need," Baron tells new residents -- they're not called inmates here. "You've got four to six months to change."

Some tell him they'd rather skip the programs and do their time elsewhere, even if that means a longer jail sentence.

Most, however, say they'll give it a shot. And within a few weeks, many are on their way to the kitchen.

Residents work in the kitchen every day, but Thursday is when they abandon jail-food fare for a Frisch's menu.

The meal doesn't cost taxpayers more than a regular meal, and it gives River City residents a feel for the hustle and bustle of a real lunch-hour rush. They take orders, work the grill, dash from freezer to fryer, and shout questions over the kitchen's din.

Greg Janneck, River City's food service manager, calls this "structured chaos." It's the one part of the 124 hours of training that can't be duplicated in a classroom or an instructional video.

The kitchen has a decidedly Frisch's feel, not least because it was designed by Frisch's architects. A giant Big Boy clock hangs on the wall, and a Frisch's menu is tacked to a bulletin board.

But the lessons taught here apply to any restaurant. The focus is on cooking, sanitation and workplace etiquette: No long hair. Don't be late. No swearing at customers.

It's basic stuff, but people who have spent months or years behind bars sometimes need reminding.

Johnson, 32, doesn't need much schooling on how to act. She's a college graduate who once supervised a research and development lab for a Fortune 500 company.

Three years ago, after a surgery, she got hooked on pain pills and then heroin. Her life bottomed out last year with a jail sentence for burglary, which brought her to River City.

She knows landing a job like the one she lost is unlikely, at least in the short run.

"I'm concerned about finding something with room to grow, but I've just got to work my way back," she said.

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Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com