Felony Franks, a prison-themed hot dog stand that continues to excite controversy on Chicago’s Near West Side, drew a crowd of supporters eager to partake in free lunch-time snacks at its grand opening Monday.
Before a crowd of around 130 people, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-7th), and Chris Mallette, an aide to Mayor Richard Daley, cut the yellow police tape across the front of the restaurant at the corner of Jackson and Western.
Throughout the afternoon, a line of people waiting for complementary “felony franks” and fries snaked around the storefront, which features a hotdog in a striped shirt with a ball and chains as its logo.
The restaurant has generated national media attention both for its theme and its mission. Owner Jim Andrews plans to employ only ex-offenders, a workforce that he’s found success with at his West Loop-based paper firm. Andrews maintains that he’s hired 10 ex-offenders for the restaurant, five of whom live in the store’s West Side 2nd Ward.
“One of the biggest problems that individuals who have criminal backgrounds and criminal records have is trying to find a source of employment,” said Davis, who praised the new store.
In addition to the trademark felony franks and “misdemeanor wieners,” the menu offers “paroled pizza puffs,” “pardon polish dogs” and “subpoena sausages,” as well as “mobster mozzarella sticks” and “mistrial fried mushrooms.”
But some neighbors don’t find the concept cute at all. Critics note that while they applaud the effort to employ ex-offenders, the name is disrespectful to its workers and detrimental to a neighborhood that has struggled to combat a history of crime and incarceration.
Second Ward Ald. Robert Fioretti insists that the name is inappropriate.
“Ruben Ivy was killed across the street from there,” he said, referring to the Crane High School senior shot to death in March 2008 in front of the school, which stands about a block east of the new hot dog stand.
Fioretti noted that there were 798 index crimes – crimes the police department categorizes as the most serious – in this beat alone. Index crimes include aggravated assaults, homicide, criminal sexual assault and so forth.
Andrews, though, has accused Fioretti of refusing to give approval for a sign overhanging Western Avenue; all such signs above the public way must be permitted by the city.
Fioretti denied Andrews’ charge. A ban on new overhanging signs is part of a Western Avenue street-scaping plan, said Fioretti. Felony Franks sported a blank, empty sign holder dangling over the sidewalk at its opening Monday.
Bob Dougherty, executive director of St. Leonard’s Ministries, also doesn’t support the eatery’s name. St. Leonard’s has been helping ex-offenders since 1955 at its campus near Warren and Hoyne, a little more than half a mile from Felony Franks.
“We have great respect for what Jim Andrews does and for his hiring formerly incarcerated men and women. We simply would have chosen a different name and ambience, because for us, there’s nothing marketable in a felony,” said Dougherty.
Monica Brown, who lives near the restaurant, has been vocal in her opposition to the theme, condemning it as “hurtful.”
“In our public school system we’ve lost around 40 kids this year,” she said. “It’s not the kind of positive imagery that we want to promote to the kids in this community.”
She added, “It’s not respectful to plaster an image of a ball and chains in any African-American community.”
“The name is not glorifying anything, I don’t think,” countered Davis, who has sponsored legislation to help ex-offenders obtain jobs and housing. “The name is saying who these individuals are. That they are individuals who have been convicted of crimes – but they still get a chance to have a job and to work.”
The controversy has highlighted the dire employment situation for those job seekers who check the box next to felony convictions on job applications. Among them is Darnell Mardis, 42. He’s been unemployed since 2006, when he began contacting Andrews about a job.
“I’ve waited three years for this – it’s a good thing,” said Mardis. “I have four kids to support and I don’t ever want to turn back to selling drugs on the street.”
Workers will be paid $8 an hour for 8 to 12-hour shifts. According to Andrews, half of the profits will be directed back to the Rescue Foundation, the nonprofit he founded in 2003 to help ex-offenders. The other half will go to the employees.
Some opponents worry that proper support services aren’t in place for employees and that Andrews may be merely capitalizing on the prison theme. They promised that protests are in the works.
Harold Davis, a neighbor who works with nonprofit Amer-I-can program to rehabilitate ex-offenders, contends that he and many of his acquaintances are so angry about the restaurant that they can hardly discuss it without “going ballistic.”
“Our prediction is: he’s not going to be there for long, because we’re going to have informational protests out there to raise people’s consciousness about the name and its meaning,” Davis said.
“Why not call it ‘Second-Chance Burgers,’ something positive like that?” he added.
But Andrews has no intention of changing the name.
“We’re sticking with the name and promoting equal rights for formerly-incarcerate people,” he said.