At DV8 Kitchen in Lexington, Ky., much of the lunchtime crowd packs into booths and tables inside the hip, industrial-looking eatery and feasts on avocado toast and sandwiches served on fresh bread, which they can watch employees make by hand.
Others choose to take their cinnamon rolls and sweet teas out on the pergola-covered patio and snap Instagram-worthy pics with one of Colette Miller’s famed Global Angel Wings murals.
They come here for the food, which one Yelp reviewer called “Suuuuuupppeerrr good.” But they’re also — knowingly or not — part of a mission to show that second-chance hiring for those in addiction recovery can be done while running a successful business.
All of the eatery’s 25 employees are in recovery from drug addiction.
As part of The Path Forward initiative, the Dayton Daily News is looking for examples of what is working in other communities and could be tried here. The owners of DV8 Kitchen — Rob and Diane Perez — believe finding jobs for people in recovery is critical for the region’s recovery.
Lexington, like Dayton, has been hit hard by an addiction crisis that has scarred the community and set many of its citizens adrift.
“The message that we have for business people is, ‘Hey we’ve gone out there. We’ve hired people in recovery. We’re having really great success,’” Perez said. “Why don’t you hire just one person?’
“Nothing is going to change unless people and commerce start to try to figure out how to be part of the solution.”
The restaurant industry is one of the nation’s largest in terms of employment, but can be a difficult environment for those in recovery. The jobs include high stress, unpredictable hours and a culture of drinking and drug use.
Rob Perez said that was why the restaurant molded the business around the special needs of its employees, including not opening for dinner so his employees can get to recovery meetings. Tips are not paid in cash, but split evenly and added to employee paychecks.
He brings in guest speakers each Tuesday afternoon to speak to the employees on topics such as health and wellness, financial responsibility, teamwork and mindfulness.
And the management has learned to be flexible, such as when an employee’s schedule conflicts with a mandatory appointment for the courts or at the employee’s treatment center.
Most new employees at DV8 Kitchen are hired straight from treatment facilities, which handle all drug testing, and work in partnership with the business to coordinate schedules and address any problems that arise.
Perez, who along with his wife owns several restaurants in the Lexington area, is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 28 years. Although they have lost employees to addiction over the past decade, he said the opioid crisis really hit home for them when one of their brightest young servers was caught using heroin in the bathroom.
The family took a vested interest in her journey through rehab and watched as she was offered but then ultimately denied a job at a supermarket.
“It completely broke her,” Perez said.
Breaking the stigma
Perez knows scrutiny is higher for his business because of who works there, and any failure will be seen as an indictment of the entire recovery community.
For that reason he sets a standard — service must be 20 percent better than anywhere else. He said he also pays his employees 20 percent more than what other fast-casual eateries in the area pay, and there is less turnover than what is typical in the hospitality industry.
In 11 months, just a handful of people have left, Perez said.
“I think that the customers see a different face of recovery,” he said. “It is about helping the folks that work here. But it’s also about helping the general public understand that the recovery community is worth a shot. The recovery community can perform good work.”
David Tobin, 50, has been in recovery for eight years. He works part-time at the restaurant while holding down a full-time job working second shift at a local hospital.
Asked to compare the two jobs, Tobin said, “The atmosphere here is just totally different,” adding that he likes the interaction he has with customers.
Some ask him to pray for a loved one battling addiction.
“You get to share your story with the people that come in,” he said. “We try to break that stigma.”
The restaurant opened last September. Although Perez hasn’t been able to repay his investors yet, customer traffic has picked up and the business has a five-star rating with 159 reviews on Yelp, making it the top-rated breakfast spot in Lexington. Many of those reviewers don’t even mention the mission of recovery hiring. The food is just that good.
“I’m not saying that this is without complication,” Perez said of his business. “I’m not saying that this doesn’t add complexity to managing people. I’m saying it does.”
But, he added, “By far it’s been the most rewarding vocational experience of my life.”
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