Lessons from a One-Year Old Social Enterprise

On November 1, 2013, a small team of dedicated social entrepreneurs made history by launching the country’s only nonprofit restaurant dedicated to training ex-offenders for careers in fine dining. At any time, EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute is training roughly 40 formerly-incarcerated men and women in the intricacies of fine dining service, cooking, French cheeses and wines, and more. EDWINS is a combination of our motto, “education wins,” and the middle name of our CEO, Brandon Chrostowski. During their six-month education program, EDWINS students rotate through various positions in the restaurant, serving up to 250 people on a Saturday night. So far, we’ve exceeded even our highest expectations: 40 of our 44 graduates are employed in restaurants throughout Northeast Ohio, we have more job openings offered to our current students than we have students to fill them, we’ve been able to address the many needs of our students through an in-house case manager and strong partnerships with other nonprofits, and, on our first birthday, the restaurant is profitable and contributes roughly 75% of the revenue necessary to run the educational program. Happy birthday, EDWINS! So, what have we learned in the first year of operation? I recently sat down with our CEO, Brandon Chrostowski, to assemble some of the lessons.

First, our success is based on the care we demonstrate every day for our students: we offer personalized instruction when they are working inside the restaurant, and we diligently help them face their personal issues outside the restaurant as well. Unlike most businesses, our whole goal is to see our students succeed not just in their jobs, but in their lives, so we offer life coaching, counseling, substance abuse recovery, and much more to ensure that we’re addressing the whole person. Our case manager proactively meets with students, so we stay one step ahead of the myriad of issues – literacy, outstanding warrants, housing, anger management, and drug abuse, to name just a few – that await our students outside our four walls. When we first started working on EDWINS in 2010, I thought we were opening a restaurant that just happened to employ a population with some significant barriers; what I’ve learned in the first year is that we opened a social service organization that just happens to manage a profitable restaurant to help pay the bills.

At the first graduation of EDWINS students, Brandon congratulates Joey on his completion of the program.

At the first graduation of EDWINS students, Brandon congratulates Joey on his completion of the program.

Second, building a culture of success is extremely difficult and requires tough choices: we care about each other, but we also have to care about the business’s bottom-line profitability. Because delivering a perfect meal is critical to our long-term health, students who can’t cut it are gently offered other opportunities outside EDWINS. Culture is also about showing that every staff member cares about our business, so it’s not unusual to see Brandon mopping, painting, or otherwise sweating to make EDWINS a successful restaurant.

Third, as Board President, I feel it’s important to talk about the challenge of running a Board of Directors for a social enterprise. Because Brandon is our CEO and is by far the most qualified to run the business, the Board generally has very little say in the staffing or operations of our most visible and tangible asset. Since we don’t need fundraising in the traditional sense, and no one on the Board would presume to tell Brandon how to run the restaurant, figuring out what we as a Board can do to help EDWINS has taken some creativity and is sometimes a struggle. Also, it’s worth mentioning that most foundations aren’t yet set up to work with social enterprises – they aren’t sure what questions to ask, what to expect from organizations like ours, or even how to measure our success.

Finally, what drives EDWINS is Brandon’s desire to constantly improve, and his impatience with even our successful status quo. Next on our agenda is to offer our students housing: we’ve discovered that it’s awfully tough to learn during the day when you aren’t sure where you’re sleeping at night, and we’ve realized that “supportive” housing is anything but. If we can truly support our students both at home and at work, we can offer the guidance they need to make better decisions. Raising $2.5 million for a massive dormitory – including the amenities they deserve, like a gym and a library – is no small task, but EDWINS is nothing if not ambitious.

In closing, I want to wish EDWINS a very happy birthday! We’re building a national model for re-entry here in Cleveland, one delicious dinner at a time.

EDWINS Graduation

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