At Edwins Leadership and Restaurant, the fine dining experience makes the establishment stand out — not just for diners but the staff, made up of mostly ex-cons looking for a second chance.
“The main mission of Edwins is to help anyone coming out of the justice system achieve their goals,” said Brandon Chrostowski, founder of Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute.
The restaurant, specializing in upscale French cuisine, is almost entirely run by students, of which 90 percent have been formerly incarcerated or have been convicted of felonies.
As a part of their six-month program, students prepare dishes, serve customers, manage the eatery and handle the business end of the restaurant.
In return, students are given valuable training, an affordable place to live, guidance under a private case worker and a stipend for their hard work.
“It dismisses the idea that if you have a felony, you’re unemployable,” Chrostowski said. “If you don’t have a skill, you’re unemployable. If you don’t have a network, you’re unemployable. There’s truth to that, but it’s not the felony that holds you back.”
Greg Horton, 25, a graduate of the program, credits Edwins for turning his life around.
“Here, they didn’t really care about what I did or what I had been through,” Horton told InsideEdition.com. “Everyone just wanted to work toward being somebody.”
Growing up, Horton explained, his mom wasn’t always around.
“It wasn’t really a bad environment, but I made my way doing bad stuff and not staying on the right path – dropping out of school, and all of that,” he said.
He said he was eventually arrested in 2011 for robbery, and sentenced to five years in prison, where he continued to act out.
“It was the same thing every day – a lot of stress, and wanting to do more,” Horton said. “It took me over three years to really get myself together, and figure out if I was going to do something better.”
He then attended a presentation held in the prison, hosted by Chrostowski.
“I kept his card,” he said.
When he got out of prison in February 2016, he struggled with what to do next, until he decided to give Chrostowski a call.
“Nobody was really opening their arms to me, but I came here and they opened their arms and accepted me,” Horton said. “They gave me a chance.”
He then enrolled in Edwins' six-month program, where in addition to perfecting techniques relating to cooking, serving, and management, he became well-versed in team work, attention to detail, and the feeling of heading to a job he enjoyed every day.
While cooking has always been a big activity in his family, Horton said being a part of the restaurant industry has renewed his love for the culinary arts.
“I went to a lot of events, did a lot of different stuff – stuff I’ve never seen or did before,” Horton said. “It interested me, and I just wanted to be a part of it.”
With the experience and support he received from Edwins, he has since seamlessly transitioned to working as a line cook at Banter Beer & Wine, a restaurant in the Cleveland area.
Founder Brandon Chrostowski is familiar with what a second chance means to his students. In fact, it was the second chance he was given when he was just a teenager that gave him his own start in the kitchen.
“[I had] a lot of energy – an abundance of energy that still exists today,” Chrostowski told InsideEdition.com. “There was a recklessness to it.”
But that all changed when he was arrested twice as a teen, and threatened by a judge to find a job or face 10 years in prison.
So, Chrostowski started knocking on doors in search of work, until a chef in downtown Detroit gave him a chance.
“I found something I could utilize my energy towards that was constructive, and it felt good,” he said. “Causing trouble feels good and that’s why you do it. I found cooking to be more fun. I felt hospitality to be more challenging. The combination of pleasure and challenge was where I knew I needed to spend my life.”
There, he was able to learn the fundamentals and foundations of what it takes to be successful in the kitchen. Chrostowski later attended the Culinary Institute of America, and worked in Michelin-starred restaurants around the world.
He continued to work in the industry for many years until 2002, when he received word that someone from his former life had been killed.
“That along with others [I knew] that were in prison or incarcerated,” Chrostowski said. “That was really that moment I said something’s got to change in this world, and we have to do something different with the skills that are available. I need to somehow give this opportunity back. The same one I received in Detroit.”
Training, Experience and 'a Safe Space'
In addition to providing training and experience, Chrostowski said his program centers around supporting students in the months following their incarceration.
Students enrolled in Edwins’ six-month program can opt to live in a dorm they pay for out of their monthly stipend. Graduates looking for a place to live can also opt to live in the dorm for $200 a month, where they can also enjoy the luxuries of a fitness center, library, kitchen and basketball court.
“It’s a place where you can work and play as well,” Chrostowski explained. “A safe place.”
A case worker hired by the restaurant, who also happens to be formerly incarcerated, is also available to the students if they need extra guidance.
In addition to the restaurant and school they run in Cleveland’s Shaker Square, Chrostowski explained that Edwins also has a strong presence within prison walls.
“We have accessible programs inside the prison,” he said, explaining their reach into seven facilities around the state. “It allows someone to say, ‘Hey, here’s something I may be able to do, whether I choose to do it or not.’”
The restaurant has also begun its outreach into community. Chrostowski explained that Edwins recently purchased a butcher shop in an inner-city neighborhood, where students can learn to work with meats and offer discounted cuts of meat to the people in the community.
And of the 165 graduates of the program, Chrostowski explained they have had only two students, or 1 percent, reoffend, compared to more than 75 percent recidivism nationwide, as reported by the National Institute of Justice.
“We can demonstrate that if you stick out a path to accomplishing your dreams, that’s going to be more powerful than the temptation around you,” Chrostowski said. “You’re focused on something that’s straight and narrow.”
For Horton, the focus is all he needed.
“I felt very prepared,” he told InsideEdition.com. “I felt like I was ready. I felt like I had help. I feel I got a skill set that they blessed me with, and I want to keep using it. I’m going to keep using it.”