Serving Food, Changing Lives
For those recovering from addiction, finding gainful employment can be difficult. Restaurateurs Diane and Rob Perez of DV8 Kitchen in Lexington and Cindy and Sal Rubino of The Café in Louisville are working to make it a little easier.
The idea is simple, the impact significant. Both couples see no reason why great food can’t be served with a much-needed dose of humanity. Their mission, beyond serving up excellent meals, is to aid in the recovery of those who need it by providing stable employment, community and support, and life-changing food.
Rob Perez possesses a seasoned résumé. Beginning with extended stints at the Hard Rock Café and establishing the ESPN Zone for the Disney Company, Rob and his wife, Diane, opened the first Saul Good Restaurant & Pub at the Fayette Mall in 2008, a second in Hamburg in 2010, a third in downtown Lexington in 2012. As a successful entrepreneur, Perez knows that profitability and quality of food are two of the most important aspects of a restaurant but, in the case of DV8, he chose instead to put something else at the top of the list. Compassion for his fellow humans.
“We didn’t open a restaurant because we thought Lexington needed another restaurant,” he says. “We opened up the restaurant to give second chances.”
The couple worked for over four years to bring the restaurant and its mission to fruition. “We investigated a lot of businesses that have used jobs as a means to a mission, in particular Homeboy Industries in L.A. and Dave’s Killer Bread just outside of Portland [Oregon]. And we just took everything that we could from them.”
Their research also revealed the most viable product for helping those in need of a second chance in the most financially sound way. “We found that bread was a great product because we can cook 144 brioche buns at DV8 and it takes us two-and-a-half hours to make that batch,” Perez says. “If we mess that up, it’s one dollar less than one of the steaks at one of our other restaurants.”
Since the concept of DV8 is to help as many individuals as possible, and not only those with food-service experience, Perez is pointedly aware how important it is to keep sustainability in the forefront. “If we have an untrained employee we should expect some mistakes, so the good thing is that if you mess up bread, it’s a lot cheaper that if we mess up a steak.”
It is rare indeed to envision any restaurant opening where the main focus isn’t on the bottom line. But that’s exactly what Perez did. He had known several people personally who were affected by alcohol or drug addiction and was seized by the idea that he had to help. “We were losing so many people at our other restaurants, and not losing them to employment but losing them to death. My wife and I became familiar with how intense the addiction is and it led us to believe that we could provide a place for people not only to be employed but a place where we can give workshops, teach life skills, show folks how to run the restaurant.”
DV8 not only assists those in recovery but has bolstered the entire community as well, offering an inclusive haven for anyone who has been affected by addiction in any way. “There’s tables I end up crying with nearly every day,” Perez says. “People saying, ‘Hey, I lost a son or daughter’ or ‘Hey, I lost a brother or sister,’ and we’re just here to support the process of reconciliation. It’s just really powerful. We never expected it.”
Ultimately, Perez realizes that “it’s all about the food.” As eager as the community and DV8 customers have been in helping the restaurant fulfill its noble vision, without high-quality offerings the business would suffer, and so would Perez’s mission. “We use wonderful ingredients in all of our food but it’s really the bread that’s the star. It’s the backbone.” Perez continues, detailing some of his restaurant’s celebrated fare. “We specialize in cinnamon rolls that are made from croissant dough—and it’s awesome.”
The Café, while sharing the philosophy of DV8, opened under different circumstances. Owners Cindy and Sal Rubino first opened The Café in Louisville Antique Mall in 1996 before migrating to its current location between the Highlands and downtown. After 20 plus years in the restaurant business, the Rubinos found they were “not in the best place” and needed to reevaluate their lifestyle. They ran establishments that “catered to the alcohol crowd” and were working “morning, noon and night seven days a week.”
While not alcoholics themselves, Rubino admits they were part of a culture that led to that. “Our lives sort of imploded. We had to reinvent ourselves. We sought guidance through counseling and found our faith and we had to do a lot of soul-searching. That led us to open The Café. This was an opportunity to open an alcohol-free lunch establishment so we could be able to be at home with our children at night. We saw this as a second chance for us.”
At the time, he says, he never considered that such an environment, and hours, would be an ideal employment atmosphere for people in recovery.
Not long after the Rubinos opened The Café they were “introduced to people who were working with those in recovery and had been incarcerated, who needed to find employment to work their recovery.”
While offering second chances had not been part of Rubino’s original vision, he considered the “second chance” that he and his wife had received. “We were asked to consider hiring these people and we did. We were reminded of getting another start at the restaurant business in a way that was not leading us back to the bad habits of before.”
Since then The Café has been providing an environment, and paycheck, that also allows for others in need of a fresh start to thrive. “People come out of detox, working their steps, trying to stay clean. They need a job and they want some place safe. The Café is the place for that.”
Still, like Perez, Rubino knows well that without great food there’d be no sustainable way for him to continue helping. He describes The Café as offering “traditional fare with a Southern accent and international influences,” including breakfast/brunch staples such as omelets, huevos rancheros and French toast. For lunch Rubino recommends their tomato dill soup or chicken salad, “which The Café has become known for the last 20 years.” With modesty, Rubino tells me that in recent years the restaurant has stepped into the local limelight for their baked in-house desserts. “We believe they’re unique to The Café. Our cakes are compared to some of the best bakeries in town.”
The good news: What Perez and Rubino are doing seems to be working, as a strong business model. “We knew going in that a breakfast-lunch operation would be less profitable than a traditional dinner house concept that serves alcohol. But, we were more concerned about preserving our marriage and quality of life for our family than we were about financial gain, explains Rubino. “This model was a deliberate attempt to create a working environment that would be sustainable and at the same time allow us to focus on what matters most, our family.” While only open since late August, Perez feels confident the second chance business model is financially viable for DV8 too.
Both restaurants are also succeeding in training a strong workforce.
Ginny Prosch, a server, has worked for Rubino for nearly two years. Prosch had no clue when she applied for a job that The Café was a haven for other people in recovery but she knew an alcohol-free environment was necessary for her recovery; that anything else would be “playing with fire.”
It’s the first year she can remember receiving only one W-2 form. “For the past 20 years, my whole career has been based off making money selling alcohol. Before, I had always tried to work places where I could drink, where it was acceptable to do that.”
Prosch is rightfully proud of her success, for which she credits Rubino and the atmosphere he’s created for those working on their recovery. She’s managed to buy a car and get an apartment since leaving the halfway house where she lived for 13 months.
“I’m around people who are working toward the same goal as me. We all celebrate together, we mourn together and we go to meetings together.” Prosch pauses, then adds thoughtfully: “Everybody knows everybody, we all know the customers by name. It’s kind of like ‘Cheers’ but instead we have cake at The Café.”
Alan, a server at DV8, concurs. He had “no experience whatsoever” in the food industry before coming aboard last August but found much-needed solace in what DV8 provides while in recovery. “It’s a chance to work,” he says. “It’s a safe environment with the opportunity to learn new stuff. What Rob and Diane have done is wonderful.”
Alan’s experience with the importance of DV8’s social philosophy has led him to recognize the need for similar opportunities. “It would be nice if there were more businesses that would give second-chance employees a chance.”
While the culinary selection at both DV8 and The Café might be mouthwatering, remember that they’re providing something greater than even the tastiest of foods: human salvation. It’s easy to get caught up in the larger picture of the world and, often, the individual can get lost in midst. And for some of these individuals these two Kentucky restaurants are nothing if not a beacon.