Beads of sweat dripped from the wizened face of Eddie Harris, the 50-year-old pit master at Ben’s BBQ — the Austin restaurant that, for the last three years, has been hosting the convicted felon’s slow-cooked metamorphosis from gangbanger to budding businessman.
“I don’t want people to look at me as a gangbanger,” said Harris, who aspires to open his own restaurant one day; perhaps in the next three years.
He was explaining the two tattoos that are conspicuously etched onto his very being — one, on his right cheek, of a heart that appears to be leaking, and two others, just underneath his left eye, that depict two blackened tear drops stained the color of soot.
“What makes more sense? That I got this one right here,” said Harris, pointing to his cheek, “for stabbing somebody in the heart and this one right here,” he said, pointing to the acid tears, “for killing somebody,” before pausing to shift the narrative, “or that this one means when I was locked up my grandmother passed away and she was a peace of my heart and this one means that I cried a lot while in prison?”
For the majority of his life — 27 years to be exact — Harris has lived confined to a prison cell. At 17, he was convicted of attempted murder, having shot a man 11 times; it was the crime that earned him the tears, his colleagues in the street having believed the man had died.
“He tried to kill me and my brother,” Harris said, of the man he shot and paralyzed. “He shot my brother five times and he shot me three times.”
Harris went to prison in 1983 and was freed 22 years later. Five weeks after walking out of the penal system, he went right back in. He had violated his parole by hanging around gang members and other criminals, which the law prohibits as a condition of a parolee’s freedom. Harris served another five years before his release in 2010.
“The scary part about being an ex-con is that it’s so hard to get a job,” said Harris, who had been walking around with both the shame of his conviction and the dread of joblessness when he found Tyrone Wideman, 65, and Linda Leslie, 63, the co-owners of Ben’s, located at 5931 W. North Ave.
“I was just looking for a job and they gave me an opportunity, another chance,” said Harris. “If they hadn’t done that, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
Wideman said that around seven of the restaurant’s nine employees are ex-offenders, a disproportionality that is deliberate. When Leslie opened the restaurant 12 years ago, after a long career in the hair industry, she wanted to remember the people she said society has forgotten.
“This is a community where the vast majority of the people in this particular Austin district has been incarcerated at one time or another in their lives and so many people don’t know their stories or even care to hear their stories,” said Leslie. “But if you give them a stigma and don’t employ them, what do they do? They return to crime.”
“There are so many young men out there we’re trying to reach out to and get in employment where they can see there is another way to life,” she said. “I often say that Ben’s is not a place they can look for a lifetime of employment, but it is a transition back into the mainstream of society.”
For Michelle Green, 44, that transition began one predawn morning in 2008. Green had done “every drug you can name,” had been living on the streets, stealing, “everything,” since she was 14 years old. She had been to prison six times.
“The judge said, ‘You’re a six time loser and if you come back here again, we’re gonna make an example out of you,'” Green recalled.
“So I made up my mind and I walked all the way from Jackson and Keeler to The Women’s Treatment Center on Ashland and Lake, but they weren’t even open,” she said. “It was like four in the morning. They didn’t open until six. I sat on the stoop until it opened and I’ve been clean ever since. I couldn’t do it no more.”
Two years later, on April 3, 2010, she walked into Ben’s BBQ and hasn’t looked back. She’s now the restaurant’s longest-serving employee, who commands the establishment’s military-clean kitchen and counts the money at the end of the day.
The person she is now is several psychological dimensions removed from the one who would sleep in abandoned cars in the dead of winter and whose parents wouldn’t trust her to be in their home, “thinking I’m going to steal something.”
“I sat on that stoop all by myself and said, ‘I gotta get it right. Either I’m going to die out here or stay in jail for the rest of my life.”
Wideman said that Green’s past is difficult to comprehend.
“It’s kind of difficult for me to even envision that past,” he said. “I can’t even imagine she was ever like that. I rarely think about any of them having pasts like that.”
Wideman and Leslie said the ex-offenders they employ don’t present any unique risks. They have no special insurance or bonded coverage. They don’t even receive any local, state or federal funding for their particular mission.
There are restaurants, such as Oak Park-based Felony Frank’s, that also focus their hiring efforts on ex-offenders. In the case of Felony’s, once located on Western Avenue before relocating to the suburbs more than a year ago, their mission of training, hiring and educating ex-offenders is part and parcel of their marketing.
In addition to the name, Frank’s menu features items like the “Misdemeanor Wiener,” “Cell Mates,” which is an Italian beef and sausage combo, and “Parolish,” a charbroiled polish sausage.
In 2012, the year Felony Frank’s closed in Chicago, then Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), in addition to numerous community activists, took offense to the name and the concept, arguing that the restaurant made light of the crime on the West Side, according to a 2012 Chicago Journal article.
For their part, however, Wideman and Leslie haven’t really advertised their unique mission despite being featured on a variety of media platforms, such as the Chicago Reader and Chicago’s Best, which have offered rave reviews of the West Side restaurant’s southern-infused fare.
Most of the menu, such as the homemade mild sauce and the ribs rubbed with Creole seasoning, is influenced by Leslie’s New Orleans heritage. The meat, which is specially sourced, is smoked on locally sourced wood stacked about seven feet high in the back of the kitchen.
For the most part, the co-owners said, they prefer to go about staffing their restaurant quietly, allowing the virtue of their mission to speak through the goodness of, say, the slow-cooked, braised and brandied beef ribs — the masterwork of a convicted felon who is gradually transforming himself into an entrepreneur.
If there’s a message to send, said Wideman, it is that there should be no hoopla about an ex-offender becoming employed, because he’s no more or less distinct or different than anyone else.
“It’s no different than having difficulties with other people,” said Wideman, a retired vice president of Northern Trust.
“People are late for work, people miss work and some people shine — just like any other place. We find the ex-offenders we employ to be as loyal, hard-working and as reliable as anybody, so over time it sort of became a family mission to help people coming out of jail.”
That family mission, Leslie said, has worked to insulate the restaurant from the problems that other, neighboring, businesses have encountered. In the 12 years Ben’s has been on North Avenue, it hasn’t been robbed, she said; despite a number of robberies having occurred at surrounding businesses. There’s rarely any loitering, although Ben’s is open until 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Before Leslie changed the name to Ben’s, the location was the site of the old Joe’s BBQ. Drug dealers would sometimes barge in the kitchen to hide stashes on top of the deep freezers, she recalled. Now, Wideman is respected enough in the area that he can subtly admonish any would-be loiterers or patrons who may stroll into the restaurant inappropriately dressed.
“The guys call me Ben, even though I’ve told them a bunch of times that’s not my real name,” Wideman said, before laughing in his deep, brass baritone.
“This is just like another family,” said 21-year-old Derwin Bobo, an Austin resident who has been doing odds and ends at Ben’s for the last two years. He’s also supervised several employees, he noted.
“I check up on them every day, even when they’re closed on Mondays,” Bobo said. “They don’t really care about the pennies or the dimes. They really just about helping people out.”
Wideman and Leslie said their ambition for the city is that more businesses focus their hiring efforts on ex-offenders, who often don’t get hired by employers that aren’t making a conscious effort to do so. The upside, for both the business and the employee, is only as limited as a person’s ability to dream, the partners suggested.
Both Green and Harris have had children since they’ve been working at Ben’s, growing the restaurant’s family tree and deepening it’s employees’ sense of purpose and loyalty to the place that gave them another chance.
“The little life I got now, I’m trying to make it work for the best,” said Harris, who noted that his youngest child, one of seven, just turned two years old. “I’m trying to show him something different. I didn’t get the opportunity to raise my other kids, but now I can show him how to be responsible and let him know that he can’t have anything in life without working for it.”