Like so many people struggling with substance abuse, Dan Rison found himself on the path to addiction following a medical procedure.
He was only 14 years old when he had surgery to correct a birth defect. That was followed by a regime of prescribed painkillers, which launched the addiction he would fight through his early 20s.
Treatment helped him overcome his disease, but recovery held its own challenges. He says employers weren’t eager to hire a young man with a history of drug use and a criminal record.
“I found it difficult trying to find even the most basic, entry-level job,” Rison says. “I didn’t know where I would end up, until I got in touch with Rob and Diane.”
That’s Rob and Diane Perez, the owners of DV8 Kitchen, a Lexington café and bakery that hires people like Rison – people in recovery who need a second chance. KET’s Connections visited the restaurant to learn more about this unique approach to fighting the opioid crisis.
Rob Perez understands what Rison has experienced because he’s been there himself. He abused alcohol and drugs when he was a teenager but he says he didn’t realize he had an addiction.
“I knew it was a way to be social and to have fun, Perez says. “I didn’t even recognize how bad I was hurting other people, to be honest. I thought it was normal.”
Perez was 25 when he hit bottom and entered treatment. He credits his wife Diane with helping him through the rehabilitation process.
“I’m just blessed to be able to have a wife that loves me through it or kicks me in the butt when I need it,” Rob says.
The couple went on to found Saul Good, a casual restaurant and pub with three locations in Lexington. But addiction once again entered their lives. Rob says 13 of their employees died over the years because of addiction. Diane says that’s not uncommon for the food service industry.
“Most people don’t do background checks, they have a flexible schedule, and then there’s cash at end of the night,” Diane says. “So it just breeds addiction.”
In one instance, the Perezes caught their best server doing heroin at work. Diane took the girl under her wing and eventually helped get her into a six-month treatment program in Louisville. After rehab, Rob says she seemed well on her way to recovery. She landed a job with a high-end grocery but then, days later, she was fired after the store manager reviewed her background check.
“I don’t blame the company, I just blame our attitude as a society about addiction,” Rob says. “She had a drug possession and shoplifting in her background and they didn’t want to hire her because they were afraid of the risk to them, but what about the risk to her?”
Rob says that girl soon returned to using drugs and is now a fugitive.
A Business Designed for People in Recovery
Diane Perez realized there had to be a better way to help people like that girl get back on their feet and able to provide for themselves. She envisioned a restaurant that would give second-chance employment opportunities to individuals in recovery from an addiction.
But Rob had to be convinced the concept would work financially. So the couple researched other businesses around the country that have as part of their missions to hire people in recovery. Rob says the challenge those companies so often faced was how to pay for on-site drug testing and counseling for the employees.
That’s when Rob got the inspiration – divine inspiration, he believes – to partner with local recovery centers like Chrysalis House and Isaiah House to let them provide the health and treatment services, while the Perezes would provide the employment opportunities.
Thanks to the generosity of benefactors who provided $250,000 in no-interest loans, and contractors who worked for free or steep discounts, the Perezes were able to build and open the new restaurant last summer. The name DV8 Kitchen comes from the hope that offering people in recovery a stable job will enable them to deviate from their previous lifestyles. The bakery and café on South Broadway in Lexington serves what it calls “life changing food” for breakfast and lunch.
“This business was designed to be able to handle a workforce that was in recovery,” Rob says. “We close at 3 so they can go home to do their recovery stuff… We also arrange for people to be able to have time to go and do the things that are court-mandated.”
Dan Rison says he reports to work by 6:30 so he can help prepare the café for the morning rush. Even though he’s sweeping floors and making coffee, Rison says he’s grateful for the opportunity to work.
“This job provides a stable environment for somebody who is looking to build a new track record,” Rison says. “They come to work here [and] they’re able to build trust again with coworkers, with employers, with the guests who come here to eat.”
Help Society and Give People Hope
The goal of DV8 Kitchen is to have a third of its staff be second-chance employees. Diane Perez says she’d rather hire people in recovery because they’re more dependable and are eager for a job. In addition to providing a judgment-free workplace, the Perezes also invite local business leaders in to give weekly talks to the staff. One recent Tuesday featured an investment advisor explaining the basics of personal finance.
The concept of fast-casual dining combined with the social good of supporting people in recovery seems to be a hit among patrons.
“The food is phenomenal,” says customer Andrew Eaton, who praises the café’s biscuits and gravy as well as its employees, who he says deserve a second chance.
“I don’t have to know their history,” says Eaton. “I don’t want them to be defined by their history. I want them to be defined by the relationship we can have as members of the same community.”
Unfortunately not every DV8 story ends happily. Rob Perez says they lost two of their best cooks who are now on the streets again. He says he loves them and prays for them, but he realizes that relapses are a potential hazard of hiring people in recovery.
“This business has shown me how to live,” Perez says. “I have a gigantic belly laugh everyday, and I have giant cry everyday.”
In addition to employing people in recovery, the café has also provided a safe haven for friends and family members of those who are still battling addiction. Perez says he often hears stories from patrons who have lost loved ones to substance abuse. Melissa Dean says her sister is an addict who has been in rehab countless times. She says one way she copes with those challenges is by volunteering to work at DV8.
“The more love and support and understanding and acceptance of people with addiction, the better off we are going to be,” Dean says. “The more chances we can give them in lifting them up, it’s just a win-win situation.”
At the end of the day, DV8 Kitchen is still a business that has to make money. Perez says the more financially successful they are, the more second-chance employees he can hire and the more he can pay them. But he also wants to ensure the business is also a success spiritually and socially. And Perez says he hopes to inspire other companies to follow in their footsteps and hire people who have had life challenges, whether that’s substance abuse, being a victim of the sex trades, or growing up in foster care.
“Our message really is use your business in a way that helps our society and helps people, that gives people hope,” Perez says.