Shuttered Chicago restaurant Felony Franks, the jail-themed hot dog stand that employs ex-convicts in an effort to re-establish them in society, failed to convince Second Ward residents to welcome the concept to the Dempster/Dodge area during a ward meeting on July 12. Residents repeatedly said that though they applaud the restaurant’s stated mission, the jail-themed marketing sends the wrong message.
Felony Franks is the brainchild of Jimmy Andrews, who told residents he believes in working to rehabilitate 18- to 30-year-olds who may have made a single mistake yet find it nearly impossible to get a job. He embraced the "in your face" nature of the Felony Franks’ message in part, he said, "because we are not hiding anything."
The store advertises "food so good it’s criminal," and offers a "Felony Frank" and a "Misdemeanor Weiner," among other items.
The 40 or so residents at the July 12 meeting were having none of it, though. Speaker after speaker said that while they welcomed the mission, they would welcome the restaurant only if it were willing to change its name.
The original Felony Franks, at Western Avenue and Madison Street in Chicago, closed recently. Upon learning of the closure, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said, "We reached out … and said, ‘Hey, have you thought of Evanston?’"
The business’s mission fits a theme championed by Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl – opportunities for offenders who have served their time. The difficulty youth with criminal records face finding work was a central reason behind her push to change marijuana laws in the City.
The City, through Paul Zalmazek of the Economic Development Department, suggested the restaurant look at the struggling Evanston Plaza at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue as a possibility. In response, Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, called a meeting of residents to invite Felony Franks to speak and gauge community reaction.
"We are just dating," said Larry Musgrave, who has joined Mr. Andrews as a co-owner and ex-offender rehabilitation specialist. He said that for 23 years he has worked to get former convicts jobs, and Felony Franks, in conjunction with an American Culinary Federation program, will allow employees to earn a "certificate" that can be taken to other restaurants.
Jack Coladarci, a lawyer working with Mr. Andrews and Mr. Musgrave, said that a new Illinois law allows certain offenders to obtain a "Certificate of Rehabiliation" or a "Certificate of Relief from Disability" that will operate to wipe out the negative effect of a conviction on a person’s record.
The three elements – job, certification, and possible certificate – support the mission of Felony Franks, which Mr. Andrews called "the regentrification of human beings."
Melovee Williamson was first to express animosity toward the name and theme. "I would not want my grandson to go someplace and buy a felony hot dog," she said.
"I think the argument across the board is not about the effort, the argument’s about the name," said resident Clarence Weaver. "[T]he marketing gets in the way of a very good effort."
Leslie Lule said, "Regardless of what your website says [Mr. Andrews referred people to the Felony Franks website repeatedly], I have an 8-year-old. How do I explain to him that going to jail is bad but getting a felony hot dog is good?"
Community activist Dickelle Fonda said that the City should support Curt’s Café – a Central Street restaurant with a mission similar to the stated mission of Felony Frank’s – rather than offer funding to a new and Chicago-based venture.
As resident after resident spoke about the message sent to youth, the proximity to Evanston Township High School, marketing, exploitation and even subliminal impact, it became ever clearer that Second Ward residents at the meeting would not support the Felony Franks concept.
Mr. Andrews, speaking with the RoundTable after the meeting, continued to promote the idea.
"If it was called John’s hot dogs, nobody would be here [at the meeting], would they?" he said. "The room would not have been full. Why would I change the name? ‘Felony Franks, home of the Misdemeanor Wiener, food so good it’s criminal’ makes a statement. It’s a statement that let’s our society know what we’re doing. We’re not changing [the name or the slogan]."
Second Ward residents made a statement as well – the jail-themed restaurant is not welcome. By Friday afternoon, Ald. Braithwaite issued a statement thanking Mr. Andrews for his interest, supporting his mission, but adding "the marketing strategy is stigmatizing and not a good fit for the Second Ward."
This was his first attempt to find a new home for his business, Mr. Andrews said.Whether Felony Franks will continue to look in Evanston, in other wards and other locations, remains to be seen."