Ohio entrepreneur hires former inmates to staff fast-growing restaurant chain

For former prisoners, finding employment is often a significant uphill battle. Joe Deloss, founder of Hot Chicken Takeover, is trying to change that.

In 2014, Deloss opened the first Hot Chicken Takeover restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. He and his wife served dishes inspired by Nashville’s famed “hot chicken” — fried chicken covered in hot sauce. Hot Chicken Takeover recently opened it seventh location, in New York City, while three additional locations are planned in Ohio.

Deloss grew up in a family devoted to community service, but believed he better help those in need by working as an employer rather than a volunteer. Today, almost 40% of Hot Chicken Takeover’s 172 workers have come out of the criminal justice system.

“I just felt a lot more compelled by the impact economic opportunity and mobility could provide along somebody’s journey in life,” he says.

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The unemployment rate among former inmates is almost five times higher than that of the general U.S. population, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

“Because we believe a crime record is often about circumstance, not character … we’re giving an opportunity for somebody to demonstrate a different story for themselves,” Deloss told NBC’s Today show several years ago.

Hot Chicken Takeover has served as a lifeline to countless employees. “I’ve told Joe before: Hot Chicken Takeover changed my life,” said Kevin Fisher, who began working for Hot Chicken Takeover after serving 26 years for a murder he argued was self-defense. “He always says that ‘You changed your life,’ and it makes me sit back and think, ‘You know, I did.’ But I always can say it’s with the help of Hot Chicken Takeover.”

Social scientists have long promoted the idea that stable employment can greatly reduce the chances that a former convict will re-offend. “Our own research found that people who get jobs are less likely to return to prison,” Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, told Politico. “It’s not just getting a job but retaining that job over time.”

The restaurant chain also helps employees with “referrals to mental health counseling and housing services, emergency cash assistance, and a savings-matching program,” reports Bloomberg.

“Every day I come in here I feel accepted,” Jameel H., one of Deloss’ employees, told the Today show. “The love is genuine. I’ve worked for numerous companies, and I’ve never felt anything like this.”

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