This hot dog joint is changing lives by creating jobs for felons.
When she was younger, the girl experienced serious abuse. She ran away from home at the age of 12 and met a boy who gave her drugs. They broke into a home, and the owner happened to be there. He killed the homeowner; she was tried as an adult and sent to jail at the age of 13 as an accessory to murder. She was in prison for 20 years. When she got out of prison, she realized quickly that no one would hire her. No matter how hard she tried, she could find no jobs for felons.
“She looked for work for 8 months, and couldn’t find anything,” says Deno Andrews, who owns Felony Franks, an unassuming hot dog joint situated in a strip mall in Illinois’ upper middle class neighborhood of Oak Park, just 20 minutes outside of Chicago.
Andrews hired her instantly because Felony Franks hires only convicted felons who’ve served their time.
Felony Franks is an anomaly among employers and companies that have policies against hiring convicted felons. But for creating jobs for felons, the fast casual restaurant has had its share of issues.
It all started back in 1995, when Andrews’ father, Jim, opened Andrews Paper Company in Chicago. The company was just a few blocks away from a halfway house, and while they were reluctant to hire the people who were in transition, they started doing this out of sheer necessity. “They were short up for work; we needed to hire people,” Andrews says. “But they were loyal and hardworking. There’s a certain work ethic that you get when it’s hard to get a job.”
He soon realized that these convicted felons were labeled as bad people. “It’s an employment life system, and it’s not fair,” Andrews says.
The odds are stacked against convicted felons in terms of getting employed: there are no jobs for felons at a ride-share provider such as Uber or Lyft; they can’t be in a YMCA; many law enforcement jobs are off limits; they can’t work in a liquor store; if the offense was money related, they might be barred from working in a financial institution; they most likely won’t be allowed to work in any retail store that sells firearms; many occupations serving children or elderly are off limits.
Andrews’ father wanted to do more for this segment of the population, so he founded a second company in Chicago: Felony Franks. This time, he was determined to provide jobs for felons, those who needed help getting their first job.
But he was saddled with problems from the start. “The alderman said the name Felony Franks would encourage young people to become criminals,” Andrews says, explaining that Bob Fioretti, the alderman on Chicago’s Near West Side, where Felony Franks was located, didn’t allow them to put up the Felony Franks sign, so while they’d invested more than $160,000 on the space, the sign frame remained empty. “It really impacted business,” Andrews says.
Other people were concerned with Felony Franks’ message: Were they using convicted felons to win business? Before ordering, there were mock Miranda rights near the entrance, and servers asked customers, “Are you ready to plead your case?” The menu listed the Misdemeanor Wiener and the Chain Gang Chili Dog.
Felony Franks began a two-year court battle against the city, which Felony Franks won, but it was too late. They closed their doors.
But Andrews, who hadn’t worked at the original Felony Franks (he’d only watched his father there), had a successful career in management consulting and wanted to do something else with his life. “I wanted to invest with my community and work really close to home,” he says. “When I plugged in all that criteria, I thought, ‘I should open Felony Franks in Oak Park where I live.’”
The Chicago location had been closed for three years, so Andrews bought the intellectual property and got to work. There was no one stopping the younger Andrews in Oak Park, which is a very progressive neighborhood compared with Chicago, he says. “They welcomed us with open arms.”
Andrews developed his own training program for convicted felons so that they could work at Felony Franks, learn management skills and any other job skills they need to know, and then move on to a higher-paying job.
It would be a bad thing if they stayed at Felony Franks for more than a few years, Andrews says. “We look at them and say, ‘What are they missing?’” he says. “Communication skills? Basic reading and writing?” Some of his employees aren’t dealing with stress very well, while others have no family or friends. Some are homeless. One was a union worker who was well educated but simply needed extra help overcoming an addiction. Andrews assesses everyone in the program and then begins their individual training, which he tailors to their needs. He does the financial literacy and leadership training himself, but he has other people come in to teach other aspects of the program. Then Andrews encourages them to get out and search for a better job.
The woman who spent 20 years in prison when she was charged as an adult for being an accessory to a murder? After working at Felony Franks, Andrews says, she took a personal training course and got her certification. Now she’s fielding job offers from high-end gyms and will soon be earning about seven times as much money as she could ever make in a restaurant.
Tyiesha Henley is also benefitting from Felony Franks. When she was released from prison after serving time for retail theft when she was 19, she began her arduous job search. “I would get the job, but when they did the background search, they’d let me know that they’d have to let me go due to my background,” says Henley, a shy, slender woman who works at Felony Franks.
Henley spent four years bouncing from job to job but spent no more than four months at each one because as soon as they ran her background check, she’d get booted. “I’d get somewhere and like it, but it made me feel so hopeless,” she says.
Finally, she heard about the jobs for felons at Andrews’ restaurant, so she applied to Felony Franks and got a job that stuck. “I feel like everyone has been in the same situation here, so we don’t have to explain ourselves and feel like we’re being watched,” Henley says. “It’s such a comfortable place.”
The goal of the restaurant was to provide jobs for felons. But it’s a business, after all, so Andrews plays up the theme of Felony Franks to attract customers.
Customers say they enjoy their experience. Nick Blankenship, a Chicago CTA bus operator stopped in for lunch recently, and he says he’ll be back. “They have a stamp on them that they can’t get a job, and someone has to help them,” he says.