Former Prisoners Given Second Chance at French Restaurant Edwins

by Anna Soref, Natural Vitality Living Editor

Sometimes witnessing a truly brilliant idea in action can seem so obvious that you find yourself wondering why it hasn’t been done before; why, in fact, you don’t see it everywhere. This was my experience when recently dining at the brand-new French restaurant that opened in my Cleveland neighborhood.

Edwins (which stands for Education Wins) opened November 1 of 2013. The upscale traditional French restaurant employs and trains recently incarcerated men and women in all aspects of running the place. My husband and I, along with two friends, were eager to try it.

In terms of a fine French restaurant, Edwins is the real deal—from the white tablecloths, silverware and wine goblets to menu items like poulet mijoté en cocotte façon Grand Mère and wine and cheese cellars. (I do have to mention here that unlike typical French restaurants, three vegan entrées were available). I could indeed expound on the fabulous food for this entire article, but Edwins’ story is much more.

The brilliant idea here in action is to nail a traditional French restaurant in every way and, at the same time, give recently jailed individuals a chance to learn new skills, along with a second chance at life. There are certainly some great programs that give reentering ex-convicts employment and new abilities, but Edwins raises the bar in every way—which is precisely the objective of the founder and chief executive officer, Brandon Chrostowski.

“You see ex-prisoners working in these sandwich shops and soup shops, and what is it grooming people to become? It’s grooming them to work at Subway or to work at cafeterias, which isn’t wrong, but the goal at Edwins is to develop leaders,” says Chrostowski. “Here, they cover all corners of the restaurant at the highest level. If they want to go backward later on, they can. But they’re here to play ball in the big leagues. The idea is to shoot big.”

Chrostowski knows firsthand how difficult it can be to bounce back from serving time in jail. A bad decision landed him in prison as a young man. A look at his résumé, though, which includes an internship under Charlie Trotter and a stint cooking in France, reveals that he bounced back pretty high, and is indeed still in the air.

He attributes his success to the time that one man gave him a second chance. “It was a chef in Detroit, who took me under his wing and showed me that perfect practices make perfect. He showed me the right way, the fundamentals of the craft, and from there I could take that wherever I wanted to go. So that was a real break then,” he says. It gave Chrostowski what he needed to change his path and succeed in the world. It also planted a seed in him that giving back was something he wanted to do.

With a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and experience cooking with the best in New York City, Europe and Chicago, Chrostowski could easily have chosen to open a restaurant with the aim of fame and money. But his desire to give back stuck with him through the years.

It took about ten years from concept to reality to open Edwins. During that time Chrostowski returned to school, where he learned to write a business plan and discovered his weaknesses. “When I went back to school and wrote up the business plan, I found out places that I was weak. If this was something I was going to do and have the legacy for doing, I wanted to work on the areas where I was weak. The first thing I did was to become a certified sommelier, and then I learned how to manage the numbers; that above all else needed to be taken care of before I could even think about soliciting money from people.”

Today Chrostowski runs two programs. He teaches a ten-month course at two jails on restaurant basics. For all those individuals who have completed the classes and been released from prison, Chrostowski has been able to help them find restaurant work.

At Edwins, individuals released from jail and reentering society are given six-month internships. Reentry can be very challenging for former inmates because they often lack jobs, housing and other essentials. Chrostowski has partnered with local agencies to ensure his trainees have housing, clothing and other necessities.

The interns work three days a week at the restaurant. They are paid $200 a month and receive 95 percent of their tips, or contributions, as Chrostowski refers to them. The other 5 percent fund their uniforms, books and food.

Open for about a month now, business is buzzing. There’s been little in the way of snafus, according to Chrostowski. “We planned for everything, every detail, so it makes sense that it’s running so well,” he says. “Their finesse and palates are getting groomed, and that will come with experience and time.”

The clientele come to Edwins for different reasons. “Some people come for the food; some people come for the purpose. For some it’s both.”

At our recent visit, we all noticed a unique happy vibe about the place. Perhaps it was everyone experiencing something exciting and new. Perhaps it was what happens when you have people embarking on a new path in life and others helping them to do it by simply eating a delicious crème brûlée.