The Newly Sober and Recently Incarcerated Find Purpose at DV8 Kitchen

By Helaina Hovitz 07/03/18

People want to look into the eye of someone they’re helping by eating there, and our staff wants to see people enjoying what they’ve made.

DV8 Kitchen staff
Through DV8, we hope to convince people that it doesn’t hurt to offer addicts or those who were previously incarcerated a second chance.

Whatever our experience with life is, was, or will be, there’s one thing we all have in common: food. It’s one of the things we need to survive, along with the social support and shelter we need to thrive. These things come together in a powerful way at a dine-in bakery in Kentucky called DV8 kitchen, where Rob Perez and his wife oversee a staff comprised entirely of people in recovery, many of whom are coming out of incarceration and looking for a second chance. After getting sober at 25, Perez, already a career hospitality veteran at a young age, decided to open a fourth restaurant located within walking distance from three different transitional living facilities. They serve homemade bread and southern breakfast-style foods, and, most importantly, employees and customers are always interacting with one another. We spoke to Perez about the employees he’s lost to addiction in the past, the ways in which the bakery is impacting the community, and that time NFL Quarterback Chad stopped by to teach a workshop on leadership and teamwork.

The Fix: Would you say there is a stronger chance of sobriety if you set your employees up with a job in a sober environment?

Rob Perez: When you do a job with quality, you build self respect, self-esteem and pride in a craft you’re developing. In recovery, we need a support system and an accountability system. And the camaraderie you get out of a job when you have common interests, backgrounds and circumstances, is pretty powerful. We’ve had a few employees tell us that it’s nice not to feel bad about turning down invites from coworkers to grab a drink after work, or even feeling pressured to do so. Our staff don’t leave programs or meetings or houses and come to a foreign environment 40 hours a week, they come to a place where we all speak the same language, have the same customs, and discussions, so it's a 24/7 program.

Are there any logistical benefits to the way it’s set up?

From a practical standpoint, even if people have insurance, most of the time, a recovery center’s money runs out after 30 days, and people have to start to contribute to the house they’re living in. So if businesses don’t take a chance on someone who has a difficult schedule to work around and a past to have to deal with, these folks can’t get through the program they’re in, and, generally, outpatient programs are a minimum of six months to one-year. Also, many of our employees have mentioned how nice it is to work with others who truly understand what they're going through.

Have the people you work with at the sober living houses given you any feedback about your impact?

They think it's working well as there’s a lot of accountability on the residents (our employees) to stay on track with the program. They really need to follow their program while they're at work or they will be asked to leave the program altogether. In that way, we work in tandem with the sober living houses to ensure the employee is meeting their goals and staying on a good path.

What do your employees do about housing when their stay nearby is up?

The houses we work with have separate sober living environments our employees can go to after their initial first year of treatment. If they’re interested, we can also connect them with community services that will help them find housing.

Why do you think there is still so much hesitancy to give people a second chance?

When you say you’re a second chance employer you run a risk of people thinking ‘second chance’ means ‘second rate.’ They don’t want to spend money on second rate. What we've been taught in society is to be hesitant in employing convicted offenders and recovering addicts. Through DV8, we hope to show them success and really convince them that it doesn’t hurt to offer addicts or those who were previously incarcerated a second chance. Though we’ve only been open for about nine months, I’ve noticed that a handful of our employees have directly reached out to government officials to discuss the importance of offering second chance employment opportunities.

Did people know your triple-bottom line when you first opened?

In our first two weeks, people felt insecure about coming to a place that had many people in recovery in it, but we also didn’t formally announce it. Without us saying it, they knew people had incarceration in their past. But once I started to contact the media and talk about our mission and the people, it all changed. People want to know that they’re making an impact, and that's why the glass wall we have between our cooks and service people and the customers is so important. People want to look into the eye of someone they’re helping by eating there, and our staff wants to see people enjoying what they’ve made. Ultimately, though, we want them to be unidentifiable from anyone else. The way they stand up straight, the enthusiasm, their confidence, we can see that they’re changing the way the public thinks about recovery and addiction.

Tell me about your personal connection to the mission.

Addiction found me and has crossed the paths of 13 other people in our other for-profit restaurants and, now, they're gone. It affected the best server we ever had, it affects my city, and it affected me. I was a binge drinker. I didn't have to drink everyday but when I did, I would frequently get out of control. I was always the last to leave a party, and the deeper I got, the more blackouts I had, taking risks with driving and getting out of embarrassing situations I had to reconstruct the next day. I was not as attentive of a husband as I should have been. I wasn't being a good person.

Rob and his wife, Diane. Image via DV8 Kitchen.

When did you decide to get help?

I had a blackout, went back to my workplace (then, it was the Hard Rock Cafe, on the corporate side) and made a fool of myself. I got suspended from work and had to tell my wife I couldn't be paid for two weeks and I said I needed help. Diane’s an angel. She loved me through it and kept me honest and kicked my ass if she needed to.

It also helps when pro-athletes come teach you a workshop.

We’ve had a bank executive come to talk to employees about personal finance, a yoga instructor to talk about mindfulness, and, yes, NFL quarterback Chad Pennington came in to talk about teamwork. During his workshop, he discussed his journey to the NFL and why both teamwork and leadership were important. He also shared more personal stories about how his Christian values have helped him through his career and life journey in general. But, all kinds of people in the community are signing up three months in advance to lead these workshops. They really want to help.

What do you think it is about the food industry that makes it such a popular ‘second-chance’ job?

My gut is it has to do with working really hard physically, it’s mental as well. You learn to get along with people, form long-lasting relationships, make mistakes without fear and be able to say sorry. Then you get to serve your food and get instant feedback. In recovery, we need to know what our results are. I think we thrive in an environment where we “know right away.” If someone likes it, or what you do, it's good to know it. There's something spiritual about a dinner table, too, and having a meal with someone. Food, dining, and breaking bread is special and is innate to our happiness.

Image via DV8 Kitchen.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Helaina Hovitz Credit Celestina Ando Photography_0.jpg

Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Women's Health, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, The New York Observer and many others. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, or