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Robert Perez

DV8 Kitchen Vocational Training Foundation — Lexington, Kentucky


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Photo by Stephen Voss

When I was 52, I started DV8 Kitchen, a 501(c)(3) that provides second-chance employment opportunities to people who are in the early stages of substance abuse recovery and are trying to redirect their lives. Since we opened our first restaurant, we have employed 180 workers, and the average tenure of employment has grown from two weeks to 11 months.​​

The problem I’m trying to solve

​I’ve spent my entire career in the restaurant industry, eventually owning and operating three restaurants in Lexington, Kentucky. I love this industry; however, drug and alcohol use are common. Late nights, a cash-based system and easily accessible alcohol all contribute to this. People struggling with addiction who are trying to find employment after incarceration often end up working in restaurants. 

In our first decade of owning restaurants, we lost over a dozen people to overdoses. We saw the problem and tried to help our people get clean and stay sober, but the opioid epidemic made things worse. Our people needed more than “just a job,” so my wife and I decided to open a restaurant without a bar that serves only breakfast and lunch — so employees can go to their AA or recovery meetings — and to hire only people in the early stages of alcohol and drug recovery. We wanted to create a safe place for people recovering from addiction to work, get healthy and start gaining confidence in themselves. 

The DV8 employment model includes partnering with residential living facilities that provide safe housing, monitor residents’ participation in behavior modification programs, and test them for drugs and alcohol each week. We believe that once a person with a history of addiction works a meaningful recovery program and has meaningful employment, recidivism can be drastically reduced and employees can go on to lead stable, fulfilling lives.

The moment that sparked my passion

​I went through alcohol rehab in my mid-20s and know how hard it is. But I honestly thought opening DV8 Kitchen was going to be a side project. I thought I was going to help them, but it has turned my life upside down and helped me. Each one of the people we work with has a unique story and totally blows me away with the challenges they face and how far they have come. We no longer have other for-profit restaurants and focus solely on DV8 Kitchen and helping people in recovery rebuild their lives. We opened a second location last year, and honestly, I’ve never been so fulfilled in my life!​​

What I wish other people knew

​As a society, we keep shrugging our shoulders about recidivism. [We think] it’s the fault of people who are incarcerated or addicted, but it’s not a level playing field. If you have a felony, you can’t get an apartment in a safe neighborhood. If you have debt with a governmental service, they suck up your money the second you put it in the bank. The general public has no idea of the challenges folks coming back into the community face after addiction and incarceration and how much help they need.​​

Why our approach is unique

​I studied many second-chance businesses dealing with addiction and recovery before opening DV8 Kitchen. More often than not, these businesses don’t work, or the second-chance employee goes back to addiction. The difference is, we’ve found that many of our employees never learned basic life skills, and we’ve developed strategies to help with this. 

One is called “the 5 Whys.” For example, most employers would terminate an employee after he or she is late three times. We stop and take five minutes to discuss why they are late. Eventually they realize the root cause on their own. We then work with them on solutions, like purchasing an alarm clock to change their behavior. The best part of having these conversations is that the employee realizes we are on the same team, mutual respect is gained, and the employee continues to gain confidence in themselves and thrive.​

Advice to others who want to make a difference​

People with a history of addiction and in recovery often find it difficult to find employers willing to take a chance on them. If you are in a position to hire people, you can be a second-chance employer. We believe that providing work can lead to a lifetime ability to maintain employment and avoid the mistakes of a past lifestyle. We’ve worked with more than 100 local businesses to offer these opportunities also. When given a chance, our people exceed expectations!​​

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