By Aaron Blevins, 1/03/2013
Restaurant gives ex-convicts a second chance
Now, after roughly 30 years of incarceration, Redemption Foods assistant general manager Phillip Senteno smiles.
And he has every reason to, having found an olive branch in the food industry after working to re-acclimate himself to society since his release in 2010. Prior to his employment at Redemption Foods, his only restaurant experience was robbing one.
“When people trust you, you embrace that trust,” Senteno said. “For me, it’s an honor to be of service.”
That is the mindset of many employees at Redemption Foods, a restaurant in Hollywood founded by nonprofit New Horizon that hires ex-convicts who have been paroled from prison and are seeking a second opportunity at life.
It is the first venture of an ambitious program to create several for-profit businesses to help parolees garner life skills to continue on a law-abiding path of success, general manager Alan Fahringer said.
He said New Horizon, headed by Jesse Bonderman and Dan Tocchini, is also looking to start a barbershop, a window washing company and a demolition and cleaning company — “things that guys with a checkered past can do.”
“We’re all about the personal empowerment of these guys, not letting their past dictate their future,” Fahringer said, adding that New Horizon is looking for property to construct re-entry housing as well.
He said many of the employees have been incarcerated for 20 to 25 years, and Redemption Foods seeks out the prison “shot-callers” (inmates wielding power), knowing that these individuals have “great influence” on their communities. Restaurant experience is not a requirement.
“We’re more about attitude than aptitude,” Fahringer said. “We can teach them.”
He said New Horizon officials have been traveling to prisons, where training begins. Participants must commit to 12 to 18 months of life skills and personal transformation training before applying, Fahringer said.
The whole model is based upon the parolees redeeming themselves through service, care, responsibility and humility. So far, only one employee has been let go since the restaurant had its “soft opening” on Dec. 6, Fahringer said.
“It’s all about giving,” he added. “It’s all about balancing the scales. It really is an entire way of being. Once we get our reentry housing settled, it’ll even be better. …Ultimately, we would like to work our way out of business.”
Tocchini said his desire to help ex-convicts readjust to normal life has been a “burden in my heart for years.” Like Fahringer, he had issues with drugs in the past, having used his family’s theatre business to launder drug money. However, Tocchini never served any prison time.
“To be able to do this, is a way to give back to the community that I felt, in some way, I had devastated,” he added. “It gives them a real opportunity to take that experience and the suffering they have and give it away and make a difference for the community.”
Tocchini said officials with Redemption Foods talk the same language and share a similar background with the parolees they serve. With so little available to help the participants lead constructive lives after being released, assisting them is a “great privilege,” he said.
“It’s a privilege to be able to work with people, particularly people who are hurting,” Tocchini said.
Redemption Foods and New Horizon have a lot in common with Delancey Street, an organization that gives convicted criminals facing jail time another chance at being productive, lawful citizens through its Christmas tree lot, catering business and moving company.
Fahringer is a graduate of Delancey Street, and credits his involvement with the organization for his job with Redemption Foods. He spent six years at Delancey Street, evading as many as 18 years in prison for manufacturing and trafficking meth.
“I fell in love with the model, and I fell in love with the prospect of helping guys not become what I had become,” Fahringer said, adding that some of Delancey Street’s philosophy is evident at Redemption Foods. “It will be very results oriented — the same sort of in-your-face structure and high expectations.”
So far, Redemption Foods is doing well, although it opened during the holidays, which can be a tough time for restaurants. It currently operates with a staff of about eight or nine, but that will increase as the eatery expands its hours in the near future.
“We’ve just been operating without much fanfare while we get sort of a rhythm,” Fahringer said.
The restaurant serves California bistro items such as sandwiches, salmon, seared Asian ribs, grilled shrimp, shepherd’s pie, pulled pork sandwiches and more. It operates using a deli format, and has a chalkboard menu.
Redemption Foods’ executive chef, Julian Turner, is a New Orleans native, and hopes to incorporate some Cajun flavors into the restaurant’s cuisine. A former restaurant owner, he had spent some time in prison, though he came out of retirement to work at the restaurant.
He is one of the veterans at Redemption Foods, and is striving to help parolees through their re-acclimation period. Turner, a substance abuse counselor, said some parolees are truly intimidated by everyday society, though they put on a tough front. He said he wants to teach new-hires skills so that they can be on a level playing field in life.
“I want to uplift their spirits,” Turner said. “I want to see these guys really succeed.”
Senteno seems uplifted. Much of the world around him has changed, but he is adapting. In 2010, he enjoyed his first Christmas outside of prison since 1967. In 2011, he got married.
“What I found [in the beginning] is that some of my thoughts had remained the same since prison,” Senteno said. “A lot of us set ourselves up for failure. You set your own future by your beliefs.”
He said he needed to change his way of thinking, and stop assuming that no one would be willing to hire him. In the past, Senteno’s frustration with his life was evidenced by his relatives telling him that he never smiled — ever. A look at his photo book confirmed this.
“I had forgotten how,” Senteno said. “There were so many things I was unaware of.”
But that has changed. Due to his long work hours preparing the restaurant to open, Senteno bought his wife a teacup maltipoo puppy to keep her company when he wasn’t around. Senteno, who was referred to as “grandpa” in prison, said a photo of him and the puppy would get good laughs out of his former cellmates.
And Phillip Senteno smiles.
For information on Redemption Foods, visit www.redemptionfoods.com. The restaurant is located at 1253 N. Vine St.