Restaurateur tackles unemployment among formerly incarcerated
Kurt Evans is a chef, restaurateur, activist and educator who is helping formerly incarcerated people merge back into society using the influence of food.
Evans is focused on providing them with culinary training, responsibility and employment.
“Chefs aren’t just people in the kitchen anymore,” Evans said. “Somebody can look at your food and be like, ‘That’s great, but what change can you make through the lens of using your food? ’”
He recently signed over his ownership equity of Down North, a neighborhood pizza spot in Strawberry Mansion, Philadelphia, to employees. Down North opened in March 2021.
“Down North was created to be a fair and equitable work environment for formerly incarcerated people. My plan was never to be the chef at the pizza shop,” Evans said.
He connected food to criminal justice in 2016 by using his Instagram to share information.
Somewhere around 27% of formerly incarcerated people in the USA are unemployed, according to recent figures from the Prison Policy Institute. The pandemic only increased this percentage.
The formerly incarcerated employees of Down North are paid above minimum wage with shared tips and have no hierarchical titles.
Evans plans to launch Project M.O.R.E. in January 2022. It’s a 12-week mentorship program for formerly incarcerated food entrepreneurs in Philadelphia. Those who complete this program will receive $3,000 to use towards their business, according to Evans.
In 2018 Evans began hosting the End Mass Incarceration dinner series, helping the formerly incarcerated to join forces with activists and policymakers. The dinners raised monies for bail funds, expungement clinics and criminal justice nonprofits.
Nineteen dinner events have been held in Philly and one in Alaska. “Food is an equalizer,” Evans said, “I haven’t met too many people that don’t like to meet up over food.”
He is also working to expand Everybody Eats Philly, a nonprofit he co-founded with fellow chef Stephanie Willis in May 2020.
This nonprofit distributes meals and fresh produce in food deserts. He hopes to launch a food truck to help the cause.