Rob Perez knows the importance of second chances. Perez underwent drug rehab at age 25 and now co-owns several restaurants in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife, Diane Perez. He may have gotten clean, but some of his employees haven’t. Perez says at their three restaurants, they’ve lost eleven employees to drug and alcohol-related deaths in nine years.

Perez’s employees unfortunately aren’t unique in their struggles with addiction. A 2015 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) found that nearly 17 percent of workers in the food and accommodations industry had a substance use disorder in the past year, the highest rate of any industry. A 2017 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that Kentucky (where the Perezes operate their restaurants) has one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the country.

“If you look at the trends, customers want to buy into something more than just a product.” – Brad Nagy, co-founder of Little Box Pizza

 

After Diane Perez set up a ride-along with a local police officer to observe drug issues in the local community, she suggested they open a restaurant that would employ those in recovery who might otherwise have trouble getting a job. “She wanted to really figure out how to help our industry with this issue of addiction,” Rob Perez says.

DV8 Kitchen Restaurant
DV8 Kitchen

DV8 Kitchen opened last August as a social enterprise, with plans to donate all end-of-year dividends to local nonprofits. “The other restaurants pay our bills, and this fills our heart,” Rob Perez says. Located within walking distance of five different transitional facilities, DV8 currently employs ten people in the early stages of recovery and works with DV8 management to track employees’ progress. “I thought, ‘What if we sign a HIPAA document that allows us to communicate?’” Rob Perez says. “‘What if the transitional living facility gave us information on whether or not they were following the rules, working the 12-step program or let us know if they failed a drug test?’”

Rob Perez says working with staff at the transitional facility “really builds the relationship where there’s an open dialogue and [employees] are more open to hear what we say.”

Since opening in August, DV8 Kitchen has retained all but four employees. DV8 Kitchen’s menu is centered on baked goods so that employees can learn baking skills they can use to build a career. In addition to providing job skill training, Rob Perez says they offer weekly life skills workshops where community leaders share their expertise with employees. “We’ve done everything from mental health to interviewing skills,” he explains.

Cathy Brower, left, and Evelyn Isaia of Ratatouille & Co.

Meanwhile, Ratatouille and Company, a Westport, Connecticut-based catering business that launched in May 2017, partners with nonprofit organizations that provide workplace development to immigrant and refugee women. Ratatouille hires those women on a per-event basis, and CEO and cofounder Evelyn Isaia says they currently have about 10 who are active, with plans to add teams in New York City to serve parties in that market.  

For server training, Ratatouille holds mock cocktail parties where the women learn skills like pouring Champagne at a 45-degree angle and answering questions about which menu items are gluten-free. “It helps them when they’re on downtime with us, so they could use the same skills somewhere else versus as a cafeteria worker,” Isaia says.

For women interested in becoming chefs, Isaia invites them to prepare their favorite dish and bring it to a meeting. At a future meeting, once they’ve identified dishes that could become part of Ratatouille’s menu, “We will bring in our executive chef, who is very good at food styling,” Isaia says, adding that they are about to host a luncheon in New York to try out a menu of food created by a woman from Syria.

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That’s not to say that servers can’t move up. “If you’re a server but you want to add culinary skills, if you’re a prep worker and we see that you’ve got talent and perseverance, we’ll work with you so you can become a chef and form your own team,” Isaia says.

Within teams, workers often speak different languages, but there’s always someone who can translate. Isaia speaks fluent French and Spanish herself. “I don’t speak Arabic so we have one of our chefs who does a lot of the translation,” she adds. “Within the teams, it works because there’s someone who can translate if necessary.”

Ratatouille & Co.

The most engaged workers tend to be those who are “really committed for their children,” Isaia says. “I think that’s the biggest motivator.”

While DV8 Kitchen and Ratatouille and Company provide employment to groups that might otherwise face unemployment or underemployment, benefit corporation Little Pizza Box in Stamford, Connecticut, gives them ownership in a food truck.

I think of it like a social franchise,” says cofounder Brad Nagy. “We find good people with the right character and skill set that need an opportunity and we give them a small business in a box so they can be successful. They have a sense of ownership and the harder they work, the more money they can earn.”

“I think it’s really an untapped market. People seem to really gravitate towards the social mission. It’s a bigger meaning to the business as opposed to just a job.” – Brad Nagy, co-founder of Little Box Pizza

A traditional franchise requires a large upfront investment from the franchisee, but in this case Little Pizza Box fronts the money. “We split the profits once we recoup the money and then the operator keeps the majority of the cash flow,” Nagy says. “It becomes like a partnership. Our interests are aligned to help them run a profitable business.”

Nagy met the first owner, James Gibson, through a mutual friend at church. Gibson is a former gang member and inmate who’s since turned his life around to provide for his family. “He’s got all the right skills, so he was just a great person to be involved in this,” Nagy says.

From left, Brad Nagy, James Gibson and Angelo Viscoso of Little Box Pizza

Gibson got a second chance as operator of the first Little Pizza Box trust, and Nagy says some of the employees are second-chance hires. “You have to be smart about it but … they’re great people, they’re great employees,” he says. “I think it’s really an untapped market. People seem to really gravitate towards the social mission. It’s a bigger meaning to the business as opposed to just a job.”

In addition to attracting employees, Nagy says Gibson’s story has resonated with the community. “We hear customers coming up and telling James, ‘Hey, I heard your story, so I wanted to try the pizza; we’re pulling for you,’” Nagy adds. “It creates a connection with the brand. … If you look at the trends, customers want to buy into something more than just a product.”

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Austin, Texas-based freelancer Susan Johnston Taylor has written about food and business for publications including The Boston Globe, Civil Eats, Entrepreneur, FastCompany.com, Fresh Cup, and Pizza Today. She'd eat goat cheese on almost anything.