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Edwin’s Second Chance Campus Comes Together

Michelle Jarboe McFee
Cleveland Plain Dealer
September 8, 2015

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Brandon Chrostowski isn’t blind to the blight on this corner of Buckeye Road and South Moreland Boulevard, on the city’s East Side. But in the abandoned apartments and bereft brick buildings, he also sees potential.

That approach – a mix of pragmatism, ferocity and faith – is apparent in Chrostowski’s first business venture, the Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute on Shaker Square. A nonprofit organization, the institute gives recently incarcerated men and women access to a culinary education and training in a high-end French restaurant. Since opening in late 2013, the facility has turned out 89 graduates, many of whom work at restaurants across Greater Cleveland.

Now Chrostowski is expanding his re-entry program, with a three-building campus designed to provide lodging for students who don’t have a home. The first such students moved onto the campus, dubbed the Edwins Second Chance Life Skills Center, last month.

Real estate records show that Chrostowski, through a new nonprofit, started buying real estate just south of Buckeye in July. Working with neighborhood leaders and knocking on doors, he managed to amass three buildings for $266,250.

A low-slung commercial strip, on Buckeye, was boarded up. Two residential buildings, on South Moreland, were occupied but in need of renovations. All three properties had been the subjects of foreclosures or forfeitures during the previous 15 years, according to court documents and other public filings.

During an August tour of the construction site, Chrostowski compared his chosen location to his broader mission. At Edwins, he’s taking a chance on workers who are often considered unemployable, on students society tends to write off. On Buckeye, he’s banking on a block scarred by abandonment, crime and neglect.

“If we’re ever going to change this perception of reentry, we’ve got to do the impossible,” said Chrostowski, a Detroit native who spent a short stretch in jail as a teenager but got a reprieve – probation – instead of a decade-long prison sentence for running when police broke up an adolescent gathering that involved drugs.

He found a restaurant job in Detroit. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He worked in Chicago, New York and Paris. He ended up in Cleveland because it felt troubled and familiar, a place where he could take his second chance and do some good for people who weren’t as lucky.

A culinary crash course

At Edwins, his students spend six grueling months studying every bit of the restaurant business, from the history of hospitality to sauce-making, serving and seating. They’re constantly thrown off balance, switching to a new station as soon as they’ve mastered a task. To stay in the program, they must show improvement.

The institute is training 30 to 40 students at any given time. A new class starts every eight weeks. More than 30 percent of those women and men will fall out of the program during the first three weeks alone.

“We don’t say ‘no’ to anyone,” said Chrostowski, who also teaches prisoners to cook at Grafton Correctional Institute, has been traveling the state’s correctional circuit to tell inmates about his program and will speak about re-entry at the City Club of Cleveland on Sept. 23.

“Anyone who wants to apply, we’re going to say ‘yes’ to, unless they have a total attitude or come in drunk or high,” he said. “Our real interview process is those first three weeks” of training.

It’s just such a tremendous mission. You’d have to be a stone-cold devil to not have it pull at your heart.

At least a tenth of the students are homeless. In some groups, more than half of the would-be chefs, bartenders and restaurateurs are living in what Chrostowski describes as a toxic or unstable environment. Students receive a stipend, ranging from $250 to $400 every two weeks, but that’s not enough to cover the cost of a traditional apartment. Some trainees take home even less cash because of wage garnishments for child support and other unpaid expenses.

That’s where the Buckeye campus comes in.

Instead of couch-surfing or sleeping in cars, students can pay $100 a month for lodging through Edwins. When they graduate, they’ll get all of that money back to use as a security deposit or initial rent payment elsewhere. On campus, they’ll receive extra training: How to create a budget. How to find an apartment. How to get copies of legal documents. How to navigate bills and bureaucracy without ceding to defeat.

A 1920s apartment building on the campus will accommodate more than 20 dormitory beds, with a fitness center, test kitchen and library in another building. Students who make it through that critical three-week initiation at Edwins will be eligible for housing. Before that, Chrostowski expects to keep working with shelters and transitional-housing programs to make sure none of his charges goes without a bed.

“Nobody will be sleeping on the street,” he said. “If that’s the case, they can sleep on my couch. That’s not the intention.”

One of the Buckeye buildings, a two-story house, could serve as short-term lodging for eight to 10 new graduates who haven’t found jobs or apartments. Most graduates quickly find work, though, landing at restaurants hungry for employees.

Marley Kichinka, who was part of the first Edwins class, is cooking at Heck’s Café in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.

At 16, she landed in a detention center and started a pattern of in-and-out-again incarceration tied to drug use and crimes committed to support her heroin habit.

At 30, she has a job and dreams of owning and operating a food truck.

“I’ve pretty much been in every institution that Ohio has to offer,” said Kichinka, who heard about Edwins while she was in a drug-rehabilitation center.

“I broke that cycle through my love of cooking and finally finding something that I’m good at, and waking up every day and knowing that I have a career,” she said. “A big part of using is knowing that you have nothing. You wake up to nothing every day. No job. No family. Nothing to look forward to.

“I fell in love with something other than drugs, basically,” she added.

A community campaign

After Chrostowski announced his campus plan late last year, donors and a crop of local and national chefs helped him raise more than $1 million for the project. Partners threw in demolition and construction manpower, free legal services and promotional help. For roughly $400, Habitat for Humanity provided furniture, washing machines and dryers for the apartments.

“It’s just such a tremendous mission,” said Chris Kelly, partner in charge of the Cleveland office of Jones Day, the law firm that helped Chrostowski create the campus nonprofit and navigate the real estate deals. “You’d have to be a stone-cold devil to not have it pull at your heart.”

Kelly, his wife and friends were dining at L’Albatros Brasserie and Bar a few years back when they met Chrostowski, who took turns as sommelier, cheese expert and general manager at the French restaurant in University Circle. It was late in the evening, and the dinner crowd was trickling out. The group started talking about Chrostowski’s idea, and a pro-bono business relationship was born.

“I’ve never seen anybody trying to do something like this,” said Kelly, adding that attorneys at Jones Day were clamoring to work on the project. “My guess is that there’s probably some government, somewhere, trying to do this. But it’s not the same as a private entrepreneurs running a very high-quality enterprise.”

The three-building Buckeye campus, flanked by empty, forgotten buildings, might be the first chapter of a bigger Edwins expansion. Chrostowski hopes to open a butcher shop and a fish shop, perhaps, on the street. Students would learn to break down whole animals. Edwins would sell meat and seafood to boost revenues. And the restaurant could reduce its costs by bringing that labor in house.

A broader project is a promising prospect for John Hopkins, who leads the Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corp. The nonprofit community-development group has been grappling with vacant buildings, foreclosures and empty storefronts for years. Since Chrostowski came along with his campus plan, a few neighbors have raised eyebrows at the prospect of housing former prisoners nearby.

But most residents warmed to the project, Hopkins said, once they heard the Edwins origin story. “They like the idea of people getting a second chance,” he said.

“That block has a lot of hope now,” he added. “Actual momentum. As opposed to really no momentum before this process.”