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Cleveland restaurant staffed by formerly incarcerated people thrives during pandemic

Edwins, a restaurant founded by Brandon Chrostowski, was created to provide employees with a second chance at life after incarceration.
/ Source: TODAY

On this week’s episode of Sunday Spotlight, TODAY’s Willie Geist highlighted Edwins, a Cleveland restaurant that specializes in French cuisine and giving employees a second chance.

Edwins was founded by Brandon Chrostowski, who spoke to NBC’s Jesse Kirsch about his restaurant and its mission to educate, support and employ those who were previously incarcerated. 

“Every human being, regardless of their past, has a right to a fair and equal future,” Chrostowski said. “It should be in our damn Constitution.”

He has run Edwins, which is short for "education wins," for nearly a decade with the intention of helping formerly incarcerated adults learn about leadership, life and fine dining skills that they can apply in and out of the kitchen. 

Edwins’ employees also have access to classes and housing through donations.

Chrostowski works to keep his staff motivated. In one clip, he tells them they could possibly lead their own restaurant in just five years. And as employees go down the stairs to the kitchen, they see the uplifting message, “Today we will win. We’ll study our mistakes and become stronger. We will win, each day, we will win,” written on the wall.

According to the Department of Justice’s data from 2012 to 2017, 46% of formerly incarcerated people return to prison after their release. 

“Of more than 500 people who have come through your program, how many have gone back to prison?” Kirsch asked the restaurant founder.

Chrostowski replied, “Less than 1%.” 

"You give someone a great chance and you support them. This is what happens," he added.

His work begins before potential workers step foot in his restaurant. Chrostowski runs a training program at Ohio’s Grafton Correctional Institution to show inmates the path they can follow after leaving prison. 

While the National Restaurant Association reported in 2021 that approximately 90,000 restaurants in the United States have closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Edwins has been thriving.

During the pandemic, the restaurant added a bakery, a butcher shop and a second location. It has also expanded the staff and provided more housing, too.

“We also have a chip on our shoulders, a lot of us,” Chrostowski said about the restaurant’s success. “So when COVID came, it was again, You’re meant to fail.”

Janelle Cook, who works at the restaurant, told Kirsch she found her calling at Edwins. She had previously been turned away by other employers because of her record.

“Myself is my drive because I know that I am better than what I placed myself in the past,” she said.

In 2021, Chrostowski spoke to TODAY about how the idea for Edwins came about.

He said, “I received a break when I was 18 going on 19 and the judge gave me probation instead of a long sentence.” 

Chrostowski later found a chef who mentored him and he went on to work in Michelin-starred kitchens in Paris and New York. 

“We’re not asking about what you did,” said Chrostowski. “We’re not looking at your experience, we’re not looking at your past. Whatever it may be, we’re looking at taking you to where you want to go.”

The staff also learn every position in the restaurant, dining room and kitchen, he explained.

TODAY also spoke to Rufus Hill, who, at the time, had been a seven-year alum of the program before becoming a sous chef.

“We’re not the ones that society is really looking at to succeed,” Hill said.  “You know, but Brandon and his staff, they made it a way where not only do you come and get educated, but you get a sense of guidance, I guess, to kind of teach you how to live life.