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Ex-convict Paul Medeiros works in the kitchen of Conviction restaurant. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ex-convict Paul Medeiros works in the kitchen of Conviction restaurant. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Social entrepreneurship

Redemption a dish best served warm Add to ...

If you want to work at Toronto restaurant Conviction, a good prerequisite is a criminal record.

Last spring, husband and wife team Marc Thuet and Biana Zorich rebranded their King Street West location to welcome 13 ex-convicts to their staff.

Was it a good business decision? Absolutely not, says Ms. Zorich. In the short-term, anyway.

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Ms. Zorich and her husband both say their motivation to bring ex-convicts into their "restaurant-slash-home" was rooted purely in good intentions. "We always had a desire to give back to the community," says celebrity chef Marc Thuet, who admits his past struggles with addiction helped him to relate to people trying to rebuild their lives.

Initially, Ms. Zorich and Mr. Thuet wanted to go to local prisons to teach cooking and serving skills to those soon to be paroled.

"These people never get a second chance, and I thought there must be a way to help them," says Mr. Thuet, who worked in some of Toronto's top kitchens, including the Fifth and Centro, before striking out on his own five years ago.

But the couple wasn't permitted to work in prisons for security reasons. So they decided to hire recently released convicts to work as cooks, food runners and servers at their restaurant, at the time called Thuet Bakery and Bistro.

Marc Thuet and Biana Zorich.
Why they did it Marc Thuet and Biana Zorich on their Conviction experience





Then Ciniflex Productions, a company that specializes in making documentary and reality television programming, approached the husband and wife team about making the concept a TV show. "The arrangement was that they'd have half control over how everything would work," Ms. Zorich says.

And that's how Mr. Thuet and Ms. Zorich's plan to do good turned into a business deal.

From there came the need to completely rebrand the restaurant, including changing its name to Conviction, around the concept of the TV program, which was more like a documentary, they feel, than a reality TV show.

"We invested $200,000 in the restaurant," says Ms. Zorich, referring to the complete makeover the space got, as well as new equipment, including a single oven that cost $40,000. Ciniflex paid the couple an undisclosed salary for production of the TV show, which they used toward their investment.

"This was very costly," says Mr. Thuet, a fourth-generation chef who hails from Alsace, France. "But we wanted to do it right." Aside from the cash they spent on the space, there was the couple's time spent with their new employees. "These people had zero experience," he says.

The couple worked with local halfway houses and shelters to recruit participants who had been convicted of crimes such as burglary and drug possession.

They started with 24 candidates and whittled them down to 13 men and women who "could work on a team, who had social skills and could present themselves with some confidence," Ms. Zorich says. "But what mattered most at the end of the day was a thirst to learn and be part of something special."

The high-end, market-fresh cuisine restaurant morphed into a television set from April to July, 2009. "The thing I learned most from this experience was the need for patience," says Ms. Zorich, referring both to training people who had never worked in a restaurant before as well as the chaos of producing the show, called Conviction Kitchen, which aired on CITY-TV in the fall of 2009.

During filming, the couple opened their second bakery location in Toronto. "It was hectic, to say the least," she says.

The uncertainty associated with this staffing endeavour wasn't lost on the couple: "It was an incredibly risky thing to do," Ms. Zorich says.

"We knew it wouldn't be easy, but when I thought about the people I knew who'd been in trouble, it pushed me to do it," Mr. Thuet says. "When people come out of prison, they need something to hang on to so that they don't go back. I think food and passion can cure people."

Lois Powers, assistant executive director at the John Howard Society of Toronto, a national non-profit group that helps people who have run afoul of the law, commends employers willing to reach out to those who've been in jail.

"We support any innovative employment program," she says, adding that employing ex-convicts indisputably helps those hired because they run less risk of re-offending. But the bigger benefit goes beyond any one individual or business: "The more people who are trained and have skill sets, the less strain it is on the economy."

But what can food and passion and 13 ex-convicts do for business?

"I can't tell you we've paid off the investment yet," Ms. Zorich says. "Sure, it was fun to have a TV show and to get paid for it, but it was a big risk and the economy last year didn't assist at all."

There has been a clear upside, though - the experiment generated a good deal of buzz. "For the most part it was positive," says Ms. Zorich. "We were treated harshly by some food critics who didn't allow a week's grace period before reviews."

"I don't want anyone to say that we did this for PR," Mr. Thuet adds. "We did it to help them. I hope it's been good for business but that's not the reason we did it."

Business has undeniably been better since they launched the experiment. The restaurant is busier on a daily basis and the couple now own three Toronto bakeries with a fourth opening soon. They credit the success both to the improved economy and to Conviction.

"The team we formed is solid now because they've worked together a full year. All the kinks are worked out. I would say their level of knowledge is now beyond comprehension. If you devote time and energy to teaching people, you really can turn them around, " Ms. Zorich says.

And if ever there was a measure of business success, it's a willingness to go down the same road twice. Or three times. This spring, the duo will open a second Conviction location in Vancouver, where they will film the second season of the show. And in September, they'll head south and do it all again in the United States with a third Conviction location and a third season.

But the biggest benefit remains the satisfaction of giving back to the community, they both say.

"It's rewarding when you see guys walk into the place with no self-esteem and they can't even carry a plate, and then six months later, they're getting a 20-per-cent tip. It's fantastic," Mr. Thuet says.

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