This San Francisco Mexican Restaurant is Giving Former Inmates a Second Chance

Lead Photo: Photo by Chloe List for Architectural Digest
Photo by Chloe List for Architectural Digest
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By now, it’s been well documented that former inmates face many difficulties when trying to re-enter society. Just last month, John Oliver dedicated almost 19 minutes to the challenges they face.

At least in San Francisco, Mexican restaurant Cala is working to give those with criminal records a second chance, according to San Francisco Magazine. In early October, the restaurant opened its doors, staffed mostly by former inmates. Owner Gabriela Cámara, a Mexican-born chef who counts Alice Walters and Diana Kennedy as her mentors, first and foremost wanted to hire people who gave her good vibes. Cámara is the chef behind D.F.’s famed restaurant Contramar, and Cala is her first U.S. restaurant.

“The other night, a server asked me the difference between sparkling wine and sparkling water,” Cámara said. “I don’t care. That stuff you can teach. You can have technically perfect food, but that doesn’t make a good restaurant. It’s the people.”

Chef Gabriela Cámara. Photo: Aubrie Pick, Special To The SF Chronicle
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Cámara didn’t build this base of her restaurant on her own, however. She got a little nudge from her general manager, Emma Rosenbush. When Rosenbush worked at Berkeley’s Prison Law Office as a recent college grad, she promised herself to hire former inmates if she were ever in the position to do so. And with Cala, Rosenbush and Cámara are leading the way in a city where the service industry is struggling.

“On one hand, you can’t find people to work in restaurants because they can’t afford to live here,” Rosenbush says. “But there’s a whole population of people who can’t get work because – what – they have a record?”

There were definitely some speed bumps along the way – one employee who jived well with Rosenbush was a no-show because he had been sent to prison again – but the restaurant is giving people like Sabrina Reid, a 46-year-old who was addicted to heroin since she was a teenager, a chance to shine.

To learn more about Cala, check out San Francisco Magazine‘s profile on the restaurant.