Steve Haddad, general manager of the Showmar’s restaurant in Monroe, had a captive audience. Literally.
He stood in the middle of a group of inmates at Brown Creek Correctional Institution’s minimum custody unit in Polkton, showing how breakfast is cooked at Showmar’s. They needed 2 gallons of water for the grits, a 4-ounce scoop to correctly measure a serving of hash browns. He made sure the stovetop was the right temperature for eggs and sausage, the oven correct for bacon.
The 15 men, who are students in South Piedmont Community College’s Cook School, scurried to follow his instructions, making sure they were doing things exactly right and asking questions along the way. Those who complete the six-month program, taught by John Dabbs, earn a certificate in Food Service Technology. And it didn’t stop with breakfast. After everyone had eaten, Haddad began showing them how hamburgers are prepared at Showmar’s. More than 30 plates – some takeout, some eaten by employees of the college or prison and some by the prisoners themselves – were prepared for breakfast. They prepared for 58 people at lunch. Some students acted as waiters and took orders from those who came to dine in and those who came for takeout.
This was Haddad’s first visit to the Cook School, but he was glad to offer his expertise. “Guys who come out of this program stick around,” said Haddad, who is also involved with a couple of ministries. “They’re honest, they’re on time, they never miss work. They’ve changed their lives all together, as far as drugs and alcohol. They’re good guys.
“The ones that make it and try to make it out of here usually come through one of these programs,” he said. “They’re giving these guys a chance, because they’ve got to be ready for society.”
And, meeting them personally gives Haddad an edge should any of them ever seek work at his restaurant. “I get to know them, get a feel for what they’re really like,” he said.
The inmates, who gather for class from 6 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday, seemed happy to have the chance to learn from someone in the business, from outside their institutional setting.
Andrew Caldwell of Charlotte, who has been in the program three and a half months, wants to find a job and get into a cooking school once he gets out. “I like this program,” he said. “This right here is going to be my stepping stone.”
Martin Young of Greensboro estimated that 90 percent of the inmates were there either directly or indirectly because of drugs. He admitted to being one of them, noting that he has an associate degree from Lees McRae and had a good sales job before he fell in with the wrong crowd and got hooked on cocaine. He has aspirations of getting an online degree from Appalachian State or UNC-Chapel Hill, and hopes that the Cook School will be his ticket to a new life in restaurant management.
“In today’s market, the more skills you have, the better chance you have,” said Young, who has been in the program five months. “Mr. Dabbs … goes over the business end of it, country club settings, short-order type restaurants. He covers all of it. You need to learn all aspects of it if you want to get into the business end of it.”
Dabbs said that’s why he includes sections such as “Cost Control,” “Safety and Sanitation” and “Menu Planning” as part of the curriculum. Many of his students get an early start on new careers by taking work-release jobs while in prison. “It makes it easier to have a reference when they go out,” Dabbs said.
Once his graduates are no longer incarcerated, he strongly suggests they attend the Community Culinary School of Charlotte. The non-profit organization “provides training for the unemployed and underemployed, who have experienced previous barriers to gainful employment,” according to the group’s brochure.
“It reinforces what I have taught,” he said. “So, they know this is not John Dabbs’ way, this is what the industry calls for.”
Some of his graduates have gone on to successful careers. One owns a local chain of restaurants and another was a chef for the Emmy Awards this year. He predicts that George Daughtry, a one-time student and currently his clerk, will be his next big success. Daughtry has been with Dabbs for three years and seven months, and has earned associate degrees in business administration and computer programming while incarcerated. “He’s one of the best bakers you’ll find,” Dabbs said. “He studies every night. I’m very proud of him. He’s someone that I think will go a long way.”
Dabbs said that Brown Creek Superintendent Herbert Jackson has been a strong supporter of the program and facilitated the purchase of some new equipment in his kitchen, including a Salamander oven (heats from the top), a convection oven and more.
For his part, Haddad said he could see himself hiring Cook School graduates. “A couple of these guys, I’m really liking,” he said after breakfast was finished.
“If I hire them and they come to work for me, they’ve got an idea of what’s going on,” he said. “They’re not in la-la land. They miss out on a lot of stuff in prison. It’s a whole new world for them out there.”
That’s why Dabbs does his best to help all of his graduates find a job once they leave. “Every one of them gets my business card when they leave and I try to help them seek employment,” he said. “I have some talented people out there. … If I can save one person a year, I feel like I’ve done something.”