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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Cooking up second chances

Lutheran program trains those with criminal backgrounds

It’s rare to find a job that requires applicants to have a criminal record, but Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s (LMM) culinary arts training program is all about second chances.

The five-month program trains students and gives them work experience in the agency’s Central Kitchen, which provides meals to several homeless shelters in the Cleveland area. After graduating, they look for permanent jobs in restaurants and food service. 

Students come from LMM programs, such as a homeless shelter or re-entry efforts, or they may be residents of a shelter where the agency serves meals. Their criminal records range from snatching purses on up to felonies. Applicants also are considered for their readiness. They get help with basic needs, such as math and literacy skills, to prepare them for the program.

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry provides 1,700 meals a day to homeless shelters, thanks to staff and culinary arts trainees who are looking to put a criminal past behind them.

“If they have a criminal background, a willingness to be in the program and they’re ready for it, they get in,” said Bryan Mauk, director of Social Enterprise, one of five LMM branches.

LMM, an ELCA-affiliated agency, serves and advocates for people currently and previously involved in the criminal justice system, at-risk youth, people with disabilities, those dealing with long-term care needs and the homeless.

The culinary arts training program was piloted in 2012 and went full scale in February 2013. That’s when LMM’s headquarters, the Richard Sering Center, was completed. It houses a 6,000-square-foot commercial kitchen that is used in culinary training and meal production. About 30 to 40 students are in the program at any given time. A new class starts monthly with six to 10 students.

“They’re pretty raw when they come to us, not knowing really much of anything,” said Matt Barnes, Central Kitchen’s executive chef. “Some people have never cooked in their life and some actually have some experience.”

Their attitudes vary as well, from thinking they know a lot when they have no clue to being willing to learn, listen and figure out what they need to do to reach the level of the chefs on staff, Barnes said.

Walter Pryor, 56, of Cleveland, came to the program after spending six days in jail for failure to provide child support. His age already worked against him in finding a job, and now he had a felony record. Although he has restaurant experience, he learned a lot in the program.

“All you’ve got to do is apply yourself and be here every day and learn,” he said. “Use the tools that they give you and apply it. ... If it weren’t for this program, I’d probably be in the gutter somewhere.”

He is now lead cook for the LMM building’s café, where he also is involved in ordering and purchasing.

Well-rounded training

Students spend three months in the classroom to learn the basics of cooking and kitchen safety. For example, they’ll learn about different parts of the knife and sharpening, then practice cutting techniques for potatoes, meat and other food. Nothing goes to waste — those potatoes will be mashed and used in shelter meals. 

Next they will have two months of on-the-job training in Central Kitchen, helping prepare the 1,700 meals made every day of the year. 

“We assign several different roles that they rotate through, ranging from kind of a steward where they’re doing dishes and cleaning, all the way up to a sous chef role where they’re like No. 2 in the kitchen. It gives them some management experience,” Mauk said.

Two trucks deliver hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner to shelters for men, women and youth, a transitional housing site and a couple of other meal sites. 

In addition to the café, spin-off businesses operated through the kitchen include a food truck and catering. That helps round out the students’ culinary experience, and some graduates, like Pryor, are hired to work in those businesses.

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry

“It’s one thing to make 500 meat loaves at a time,” Mauk said. “It’s a little bit different ... in a café where you’ve got people ordering a variety of things, you’re cooking each burger to order and things like that.”

The program has an employment specialist who works with students on job skills and readiness. Ultimately the specialist connects graduates with job leads through LMM’s network or people who contact the agency looking for people to hire. 

The graduation rate is about 60 percent. Of those who have graduated, about 80 percent have found jobs, and the retention rate is about 70 percent over the course of a year.

Graduates find jobs, ranging from dishwashers to sous chefs, but most find line and prep cook positions, which are mid-range in a kitchen, Mauk said. Wages range from $12 to $14 an hour.

The two chefs on staff, a culinary instructor and Barnes, who runs the food production, both have networks within the Cleveland culinary scene. So a recommendation from them affirming the students’ skills goes a long way toward getting hired, Mauk said.

“We’ve been blessed to have a couple of employers who were willing to give us a shot in the beginning,” he added. “And once they see our guys and gals and the skills they have, we’ve seen a lot of employers come back and  look for more. 

“A lot of the employers who hire from our graduates are owners of independent restaurants, so they’re individuals who are willing to give somebody a second chance. Some of the larger corporations have rules that can be additional barriers for our folks.”

Mauk hears positive feedback from employers: “We’ve found that a lot of folks maybe start in lower jobs, but they advance quickly once the employers see the skills that they have, see their work ethic and see their willingness to go the extra mile.”

One graduate was hired at the beginning of baseball season to work at Progressive Field in the Terrace Club, a higher-end restaurant in the Cleveland Indians’ ballpark.

“He’s already been promoted to be a lead cook in the burger division in the club level, so he oversees the production of like 2,000 burgers every game. And he’s in charge of a couple guys,” Mauk said. “It’s one thing to hire them, but it’s another thing to hire them, keep them and then promote them.”

It still can be a challenge to get a job with a criminal record, even if the offense was committed years ago, said Michael Sering, vice president of Housing & Shelter, an LMM program. “At the homeless shelter, we serve about 4,000 guys per year,” he said, “and two-thirds of them have been previously incarcerated and so employment and housing are huge barriers to their self-sufficiency. 

“That’s part of the reason that we [created] the program — to welcome people with those backgrounds, and see the gifts and talents and potential in them, and then give them the skills and confidence to get their own jobs. This program really boils down to forgiveness and second chances.”


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