These High-End Restaurants Are Giving Felons a Second Chance
Mark Loranger, president and CEO of nonprofit Chrysalis, is giving me a tour of the organization’s downtown location when a voice sounds through the PA system, calling everyone to the lobby for a bell-ringing ceremony. Case managers and accountants leave their offices and head down the hallway. Clients step out of the computer lab and classrooms to gather around a high counter lined with sign-in clipboards. Anthony, a young man in torn jean shorts and a T-shirt, shakes a small golden bell from side to side as the audience applauds. The ringing of the “success bell” means he’s secured a job.
The ceremony lasts all of three or four minutes, during which Anthony shares significant moments from the last few months of his life. He was released from prison in March, then connected with Chrysalis soon after and visited the center daily. He worked with the “roads crew,” a Chrysalis extension that offers clients short-term work experience, before deciding to look for something different on his own. He walked into Clifton’s Cafeteria, got a job interview and was hired as a bus boy a few days later.
It’s a typical, if fast, Chrysalis story, according to Loranger. Since the mid-1980s, the organization has provided support for men and women disconnected from the workforce, most often due to homelessness, time in jail and/or criminal convictions.
“That is our niche,” Loranger says. “We look at the clients who walk in, we consider the barriers that will keep them from getting a job, and we determine the right mix of resources that help them join the workforce.”
On average, Chrysalis clients find employment in three to six months. If they don’t have a background issue, the process is easier. After a 30-minute orientation (offered every weekday morning), men and women sign up and receive a key card that allows them access to the center. They are assigned a case worker who will support their job hunt and tailor a plan to clients’ specific needs, from finding affordable housing to getting treatment for trauma.
Additionally, all clients do 12 hours of coursework on soft skills vital for holding down a job. Role-playing is often incorporated into classes, Loranger says, and instructors stress the importance of reliability, teamwork and a positive attitude. Volunteers also assist clients with résumé writing and practice interviews. A resource room adjacent to the lobby offers donated professional clothing that clients can take (and keep) for actual interviews.
In 2016 alone, Chrysalis helped 2,350 Angelenos find work. About 600 of those jobs were within Chrysalis itself. The nonprofit runs three of its own businesses — the street-cleaning crew that Anthony was on, a staffing business that regularly supplies workers to affordable-housing facilities, and a landscape and labor crew in partnership with Caltrans and the mayor’s office.
“So much of it is motivation,” Loranger said. “If a client comes in and signs the board every day, that’s super active. They might come in to reflect with their case worker on an interview that went bad, for example. If they’re diligent, one of two things will happen: Either they’ll get a job with one of our businesses, or they’ll get a job outside. You get the results you put in.”
Lately, an increasing number of Chrysalis participants are finding work in L.A. restaurants. The organization’s direct-hire program — in which companies call Chrysalis’ business development manager, Adam Hirsch, directly to find employees — launched two years ago. Since then, Chrysalis clients have been hired at Cassia, Mohawk Bend, the Butcher’s Daughter, Milo and Olive, Stella Barra, Soup Plantation and Surf Cafe in Venice. Fourteen percent of Chrysalis clients hired in 2016 went into restaurant work, beating out other sectors like construction (13 percent), retail (11 percent) and maintenance (10 percent). Curtis Stone, chef at Gwen and Maude, has come to rely heavily on the organization in order to fill positions at his restaurants. His first Chrysalis client joined his team even before the direct-hire program officially debuted.
Chef Curtis Stone hopes to see more of his colleagues in the restaurant industry hire at-risk people through Chrysalis.
“We have such a tough time with staff retention in our business, even at high-end restaurants,” Stone told me on the phone one afternoon. “It’s difficult to keep team members active and motivated in jobs that are challenging and relatively mundane — glass washer, pot washer, vegetable prep. But my guys from Chrysalis are so grateful for a second chance. To find an employer that says, ‘Look, I know your past, but I’m prepared to live with it as long as you play by the rules; I’ll treat you fairly if you treat me fairly.’ That attitude gets us real loyalty and really motivates people.”
Restaurateur Stephane Bombet (The Ponte, Hanjip, Faith & Flower), who just recently started working with the nonprofit, agrees that Chrysalis hires demonstrate an incredible work ethic.
“The other night I was at Hanjip, and we were completely packed,” he said. “Brandon, a guy from Chrysalis, was working unbelievably hard — beyond what I could do — and it was his second day on the job. I think the people that are part of this program are quite driven. They want to do the job well.”
Darrell Stevenson was Curtis Stone’s first Chrysalis hire more than three years ago (Stone has taken on about 30 people from the organization since then). As Stevenson tells it, he was once a functioning addict whose drug habit took him in and out of jail. After his third stint in prison, he connected with Chrysalis and found work as a janitor. He also completed 12 hours of classes at the downtown center and retooled his résumé — he had previous work experience in film and television production and as an assistant manager with Sav-on Drugs. That led to an interview with Stone at Maude, where he was hired as a dishwasher. It was entry level, but Stevenson showed off his other skills when he could, fixing machinery, dealing with vendors, even managing other people in his area. He soon was named head porter, and he became a liaison of sorts with Chrysalis, hiring peers from the organization that had helped him not so long ago.
“My retention with Chrysalis guys is excellent, and yes, I’m a little proud,” Stevenson told me with a grin. “I’m watching all the turnover saying, 'Hey, my guys are still here!'”
When Stone was set to open Gwen, he named Stevenson kitchen manager and placed him in charge of hiring all back-of-house positions. Of course, Stevenson called on Chrysalis. Robert Myers, a father of two, and Rudy Sanchez, a father of five, are among those on Stevenson’s team, and both say that their children are a source of inspiration for turning their lives around. Myers calls Chrysalis a “godsend” and says that he’s particularly grateful for having moved from Chrysalis’ roads crew to kitchen work, first at USC and then at Gwen.
Sanchez’s criminal record was his heaviest burden to bear, but Chrysalis helped him carry it. He took a special class for people with a similar history, and he learned how to address his past rather than hide it from potential employers.
“I had to explain that that was me back then, but that now I’m trying to better myself,” Sanchez said. “That’s the one that I owe to Chrysalis. Without them, I don’t think I’d be working. I’d probably be at the swap meet selling socks.”
Robert Myers, left, Fannie Holliday, Steven Ransom, Darrell Stevenson and Rudy Sanchez
Stone and Loranger of Chrysalis agree that the success rate of their partnership is a win-win. Stone gets staffers with a high retention rate — his Chrysalis employees tend to stay on twice as long as his non-Chrysalis hires — and Chrysalis’ support of unemployed locals helps ease two of L.A.’s biggest challenges: poverty and homelessness. Stone hopes to see more of his comrades in the L.A. food scene team up with the organization; later this summer, he plans to gather some of his peers together to share his positive experience with Chrysalis. He hopes to see more of his colleagues stand behind the nonprofit.
“Our clients don’t treat [their positions] as entry-level jobs,” Loranger said. “They’re trying to get on the path to self-sufficiency, and getting work is the first step. That employer has taken a chance on them, despite any baggage they might have. Our clients want to be there, they want to learn and they feel a lot of loyalty.”
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.