One of San Francisco’s best restaurants hires as many ex-felons as it can.
Every day at 4 p.m., employees at Cala — the acclaimed Mexican restaurant in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley — gather around the communal table for a pre-service meeting. Jerome Boone, who has a shaved head and faded tattoos on his wrist and forearm, has folded an old menu on which to take notes of the floor manager’s bullet points. Let guests know the sea urchin with nopal is on the menu — they’ll be glad. With 163 reservations tonight, we won’t be out of the weeds until 10 p.m. The raw oysters are Shigokus from Washington — push those, they’re exceptional.
Gabriela Cámara, Cala’s chef and owner, drops by and, with the end of her blouse, wipes fingerprints off the plate of ceviche that Boone and the staff are scooping up with tortilla chips. The floor manager asks them to describe the dish and identify the ingredient replacing the watermelon radish. Boone volunteers a description and gives the correct answer (celtuce, a Chinese lettuce). “Great!” Cámara says. “But don’t forget to say the most important ingredient first: halibut.”
Of the 12 front-of-house employees standing around the table, five are ex-felons, including Boone. Cala is one of the few restaurants in the country that has a policy of seeking out and hiring former convicts. Some have come through probation departments or recommendations from public defenders; others walked in off the street. They now make up about a third of Cala’s 43-person staff. Everyone works at least 30 hours a week, receives benefits, and shares the house’s pooled tips. “It’s not a charity. It’s a business,” Cámara says. “I think it’s a better business model for this type of food and service to have people committed full time and people who take care of what I need them to take care of, because then I take care of them.”
One of Mexico’s most revered chefs, Cámara has done something similar at Contramar, her Mexico City restaurant. “There, it happens in a less institutionalized way,” she says. “I basically have a lot of people who have had a rough life, poor in every sense.” In San Francisco, she faces a different challenge: Attracting and retaining qualified staff is extremely difficult because the city has become such an expensive place to live. She opened Cala, her first restaurant in the U.S., in October 2015. Eight months later, Food and Wine named it one of the top ten new restaurants of the year.
Cala’s general manager, Emma Rosenbush, met Cámara while running a pop-up restaurant in Mexico City. Rosenbush had once worked as a litigation assistant for the Berkeley Prison Law Office, where she became concerned about California’s high rate of recidivism. She was not just receptive to the idea of hiring ex-felons, she could supply a list of organizations that could help. Rosenbush and Cámara started with an informational meeting at the San Francisco Probation Center, and so many people showed up that Rosenbush had to schedule 20-minute interviews over two days. By the end of the second day, Rosenbush had met with close to 40 candidates. They weren’t asked where they were incarcerated, what their crime was, or if it was violent.
Rosenbush and Cámara winnowed the candidates to 25 and trained them in a classroom at the probation department. They started with the basics, like wine comes from grapes. Two weeks later, they ran a mock service in the café of Delancey Street, a nonprofit that provides vocational training for ex-felons and recovering addicts. “That initial run-through was really challenging,” Rosenbush says. “The lack of experience was very clear.”
Cala opened with 70 percent of its staff ex-felons, which Rosenbush acknowledges was overambitious. She’s had to fire a number. “If you are late because you can’t get it together,” she says, “there’s no preferential treatment given to anyone. They have to perform at a certain level or they can’t work here anymore. Are you warm? Are you kind? Do you have the hospitality gene?” She says of Boone, “I could tell within the first 30 seconds he had it. So lovely and eloquent. I liked him right away.”
Boone is so tall that when he sits he’s careful not to let his knees skim the bottom of the table in Cala’s dining room. His voice is deep, but he’s soft-spoken, often ending sentences with a laugh. His cadence dwindles when he talks about catching more time during his most recent stint for conspiring to sell drugs in prison. He was incarcerated “for drug use and everything that comes along with that” for almost 20 of his 38 years. He sucks his teeth. “Wow, that’s rough to admit,” he says. The longest he’s ever been out as an adult is a year and a half.
Yoga and meditation classes offered at San Quentin, where he spent the last six years of his term, helped him with what he calls his “total overhaul.” He completed a 12-step program and academic classes. He also took a course in entrepreneurial skills called The Last Mile and through the program got the interview at Cala. “I didn’t really have a shirt-and-tie-type outfit,” he says. “I came in fitted as I could be, neat as I could be.” He interviewed with Rosenbush and the floor manager at a corner of the communal table. He posed for a picture that day to commemorate getting a job as a busser. In it, Boone wears a blue argyle sweater and stands outside the door of the restaurant, hands in the pockets of creased dark denim, smiling into the sun. He started at Cala in May, just two months after his release; now he commutes more than an hour, four or five days a week, from a transitional home in Hayward.
“Have you ever seen a crumber?” he asks suddenly. From his back pocket he grabs the silver tool used to clear crumbs off tables between courses. “When they handed it to me, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to be digging or something?’”
Boone recalls his first day — running food and water, clearing and resetting tables, stocking service stations — with a laugh. “I was perspiring profusely,” he says. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh please, don’t sweat too much.’” He’s since moved up to server, which required passing a menu quiz, but more important, he says, he’s gained confidence in the dining room.
At 5 p.m., right after the pre-service meeting, diners begin to fill the restaurant. Boone stands at the computer, five identical pens lined up neatly in the pocket of his long black apron, and enters an appetizer order. His eyes move between the screen and the small notepad he’s holding up next to it. He steadily bobs his head to a Celia Cruz song, as a means of focusing, it seems, while he searches for the right tabs. The promotion took about four months. “I’ve seen people do it in two months, but I still feel good,” he says, not taking his eyes off the first table that is his tonight.