Railroad square restaurant provides opportunities to released offenders

The "Yes Chef! Cafe" at Railroad Square Art Park works to end re-incarceration  
Photo  submitted by Naja Hardmon

Among the many entrepreneurial endeavors one might find exploring the winding road within Railroad Square Park, “Yes Chef! Café“ provides work for convicted felons.

Apart of the Big Bend’s Homeless Coalition’s REfire Culinary Program, “Yes Chef! Café” is the newest addition to providing an alternative method for convicted felons to become self-sufficient and successfully re-enter society as contributing citizens.

“Yes Chef! Café” opened its doors early September to the Tallahassee public and has yet to close any on those in need. Employee and team leader, Alfredo Thomas credits the program for giving him an opportunity that he would otherwise be denied as a convicted felon.

“Since I’ve been working here, it’s had a profound impact on my life,” Thomas explained. “It gives me employment [and] it provides me a way to take care of myself and to sustain good productive living.”

The quaint shop located within the “Breezeway” of Railroad Square Park is one out of four food vendors that specialize in fresh wraps, salads, sandwiches and more, all of which are prepared by students of REfire's culinary program.

REfire’s eight-week nonprofit culinary program trains convicted felons on how to obtain a ServSafe Certificate, operate a professional kitchen, and present themselves in an employable manner to decrease the rising rate of re-incarceration in Florida. The program also offers to connect graduates with job opportunities in Tallahassee.

“A lot of times as a convicted felon, when you’re released from incarceration, you get out into society and you find that society isn’t as forgiving… said Thomas. “I think a program like this provides convicted felons with an opportunity for them to take care of themselves without resorting back into their own ways or habits, I love this place.”

Their vision comes to life in a time of dire need considering the statistics.

Following the post-release of individuals ranging 30 states, a 2014 study conducted by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that “Within 5 years of release, 84.1% of inmates who were age 24 or younger at release were arrested, compared to 78.6% of inmates ages 25 to 39 and 69.2% of those age 40 or older.”

These numbers are considered high when compared to the rate of other countries, like Norway, whose recidivism rate averages at 20 percent.

Founder, director and instructor at REfire, Rebecca Kelly-Manders, is proud of the way the program helps end the cycle of re-incarceration.

“REfire takes individuals who have an interest in the culinary arts, who have an interest in restarting their lives,” expressed Kelly-Manders. “They’re walking away and getting distance from the mistakes they made that led them into the criminal justice system and we’re giving them the opportunity to put those things behind them and move forward in a new direction.”

When many leave incarceration their job options are extremely limited. Programs like these give convicted felons the opportunity at a second chance at life. Kelly- Manders wants the focus to be on treating these individuals fairly.

“90 percent of the people who reoffend will tell you they did what they did to make sure they could provide for themselves or their family,” Kelly Manders said. “Not because they wanted to, but because they didn't have any other resources. If we can put a wedge in that cycle, if we can stop a part of that cycle then it's a win-win for everyone.”

Along with students gaining experience, residents of the Big Bend are provided with better meals while there is less stress in the kitchen. Overall, the restaurant hopes Tallahassee residents have an open mind when visiting.

All proceeds from “Yes Chef! Café” will feed back into the REfire culinary program and assist its students in continuing their tuition-free policy.

To find ways to get involved with the REfire program visit refireculinary.org.