Felony Franks Hires Ex-convicts to Help Them Play Catch-up With Their Lives

Felony Franks relishes its position as just a “regular hot dog stand,” said owner Deno Andrews. It’s a regular Chicago-style hot dog stand all right — home of the “Misdemeanor Weiner” hot dog and the “Parolish” polish sausage — but one that uses different ingredients in its hiring practices: ex-convicts.

The restaurant, which opened in Oak Park, Illinois, on Feb. 19, employs, trains and educates former offenders.

“There’s a huge stigma to having a felony on your record in the United States,” Andrews said. “We’ve decided to accept that we’re probably not going to change the political system, we’re probably not going to change the justice system, so our solution is based on meaningful employment — ensuring people that you can be professional, you can run a business and so forth.”

Felony Franks is not alone in its desire to hire ex-convicts. John Shegerian, CEO of Electronic Recyclers International, has spoken publicly about how he uses his position as head of company as an opportunity to provide jobs for people from marginalized segments of society, including former convicts.

“I’ve generally found that when you hire someone who’s looking for one last chance to turn his life around, he’ll roll up his sleeves and give you everything he’s got,” Shegerian wrote in a 2010 commentary for CBS MoneyWatch.Felony Franks image 1 March 2015

Additionally, websites such as Exoffenders list dozens of employers known to hire people with criminal records, including notable companies such as Apple Inc., General Mills Inc. and Tesla Motors Inc. But Felony Franks is unique in that it employs only people who have been formerly incarcerated.

The newly opened hot dog stand currently employs eight full-time and five part-time workers, all of whom are ex-convicts. Andrews said he hopes to expand the restaurant into a franchise, so as to provide more job and management opportunities for people with criminal records.

The concept was first envisioned by Deno Andrews’ father, Jim Andrews, who opened the original Felony Franks on the West Side of Chicago in 2009. But a city alderman took issue with the restaurant’s name, leading to a lengthy legal battle over First Amendment rights that resulted in the hot dog stand’s closure in 2012. Deno Andrews, who left his nine-year position as general manager of a consulting firm to reopen Felony Franks, describes the Oak Park relaunch as a second chance — both for the business and its employees.

“I had a pretty wild nine years of traveling around the world in first class, making a good amount of money. It was fun, but it wasn’t fulfilling,” Deno Andrews said. “I saw how fulfilled my father was helping people, and I just got to a point in my life where I thought I could do this consulting thing for another 10 years and retire, or I could open a Felony Franks and help people that need help.”

Felony Franks helps its employees not just by providing them with a job and restaurant training, but also through various other services offered by its nonprofit counterpart, the Rescue Foundation, which Jim Andrews founded in 2003 to help ex-offenders. Though jobs at Felony Franks are intended to be long-term employment opportunities, Deno Andrews said he realizes not everyone wants to work in food service forever. Workers are given a business education, including instruction about concepts such as net profit and profit margins, as well as mentoring and assistance with any sort of general life problems that they might have.

Felony Franks image 2 March 2015“A lot of them don’t have bank accounts,” Andrews said. “When they get a paycheck, they end up having to pay huge percentages to check cashers to cash their checks. So we have banks that come in and help them to get bank accounts, re-establish credit … so they can walk across the street and cash a check without paying a fee.”

Andrews said Felony Franks sources its employees from two Chicago-area foundations focused on rehabilitating former offenders: the GEO Group Inc., and the Safer Foundation. Both provide services to help people with criminal records transition back to full-time employment. These groups refer people who they believe to be good candidates for restaurant employment to Felony Franks as potential hires.

David Gianfrancesco, who now serves as the Safer Foundation’s associate vice president of model development but until recently worked as the director of workforce development, said the foundation assigns each client a case manager who ensures all individual needs are met.

“The amount of support and preparation that Safer Foundation does for our candidates prepares them for the opportunity that they’re trying to get,” Gianfrancesco said. “From that respect, I would say our candidates are often more ready for work than if they were to just hire off the street or off any kind of model they might use, whether it be Craigslist or whatever it may be. Our clients come prepared.”

Gianfrancesco said Safer Foundation successfully places ex-convicts with hundreds of different companies each year, though the most common industries tend to be food service, manufacturing, and transportation and distribution.

“We work with any company out there that’s willing to hire someone that’s the right fit for a position, taking all the other factors out of the equation and just focusing on: ‘Can you do this job?’ ” Gianfrancesco said. “They’re the companies we’re trying to work with.”

Felony Franks certainly fits that bill. Andrews said the only qualification Felony Franks looks for in its potential hires is the desire to do good work.

“We’re just looking for men and women who have the right attitude and commitment to making excellent food,” Andrews said.

This article originally appeared in Diversity Executive's sister publication, Workforce.