TRENTON, N.J. — It could happen in any restaurant. A customer knocks over a glass of soda, dousing his tablemate and the floor. Two waiters quickly appear with towels. "Don't worry about it. Not a problem," says one calmly. In moments, the puddle is gone and the waiters return to their duties, the picture of professionalism.
This scene would be unremarkable in most restaurants. For the waiters at the Mates Inn in Trenton, N.J., however, it represents a striking transformation. They, like the kitchen staff, had little or no restaurant experience when they began working at this cozy eatery with the burgundy drapes and tablecloths. Most had never worked with the public or set a table with china plates.
What the men, all in their 20s, do have are troubled pasts and arrest records. All are serving time at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility.
But with the help of the chef/teachers at Mates Inn, which is run by the New Jersey Department of Corrections, they're gaining new, more positive convictions about themselves. They are also learning marketable skills and serving the kind of meals that keep customers coming back.
And come they do: a group of white-haired women. Two employees from the Department of Corrections. Someone who works in a nearby state office. Where else, they say, could you get stuffed pork loin, a baked potato, and broccoli in a light sauce for $5? Chocolate decadence cake for $2? Pancakes and bacon for $3.50?
"You can't find better food anywhere," says Gene Pryor, who eats here once a week. "The specials are awesome, and the desserts are all homemade."
Sue Bower, who works in the area, agrees. "This place is as good as any small local restaurant. The service is good, very courteous," she says. Like many patrons, she raves about the crisp, perfectly salted French fries.
Such comments delight Mark Saxton, head chef and teacher. He and two other instructors work side by side with the 14 inmates, teaching them every aspect of restaurant work.
The men, who must be in the last 18 months of their sentence, sign a four-month contract. During that time, they take four 90-minute classes a week, in addition to their hands-on work. (The only thing they don't do is handle money. Customers pay with special debit cards that they buy from a machine. Tipping is not allowed. )
Upon completion, inmates earn 15 credits toward a high school diploma. They also receive a certificate in culinary arts from the Burlington County Institute of Technology.
Few men drop out of the program, says Mr. Saxton. Most appreciate the intensive training they receive, even if they hadn't considered culinary work before.
They also like eating two meals a day at the restaurant, which serves 50 to 100 customers each weekday. Once a month, when the eatery offers a buffet for $7.50, the line stretches out the door.
With so much practice, the men begin to gain confidence, which is key to their future success, says Saxton. "You can teach anybody to cook, but for them to flourish, they need to have confidence that they can use those skills."
That self-assuredness often comes faster in the kitchen than in the dining room. New waiters, uneasy about dealing with the public, tend to rush courses or bring the bill too soon.
Yet patrons and DOC staff see a noticeable change over time.
Ms. Bower, the French-fry fan, has watched one waiter blossom. "This young man never said anything, but we recognized and acknowledged him, and he started to open up," she says. "Later he'd stop by and say hello when he was working at other tables."
"In the beginning, they have to find their own," says Saxton. "They have to get their swagger."
He chuckles about Pedro Torres, who once dreaded working in the dining room. Now, Mr. Torres enjoys his relationship with customers so much that "it will take everything to get him back in the kitchen."
The cooks get their chance to shine, too. Some of their recipes have been featured on the menu, along with their names.
"You can't overestimate how much it means to them to hear what a good job they've done," says Matt Schuman, spokesman for the DOC. "They haven't had many opportunities to do things that make them feel good about themselves."
The Mates Inn doesn't keep statistics on how many men stay with culinary arts after their release.
Torres, however, plans to work at his family's restaurant. Michael Zelenak, who's working in the kitchen, expects to attend culinary school when he leaves in January. "I don't want to do manual labor," he says.
The restaurant, which opened in 1977, closed for renovation in 2002. A year later, to the delight of patrons, it reopened with a classy new look.
DOC Commissioner Devon Brown, who ordered the renovation, hopes that other states will open prison-affiliated restaurants, even if they don't have a separate dining facility on site. (The central office of the New Jersey DOC is on the grounds of a former girls' school.)
"More and more across the nation we're understanding the value of education in habilitation, or rehabilitation," he says. "With so many people coming under correctional control - which means 95 percent will be leaving - our job as public servants is to make sure that those people are successful upon release. If we can make sure they readjust, that furthers public safety, helping to ensure at the very least that there will not be another victim."
Mr. Brown also wants to take the Mates Inn concept one step further. His goal: Open a restaurant in the community that would be run by Mates Inn alums. His model is the award-winning Delancey Street Restaurant in San Francisco, which is staffed by recovering drug addicts and ex-felons. The Delancey training program in culinary arts is so well respected that its graduates are in great demand around the city.
Brown doesn't have a timetable for his new venture, but, "We have always operated under the belief that the environment plays a major role in reshaping behavior, and the more positive the environment is, the more favorable the behavior is," he says.
Like Saxton, he believes that developing and maintaining self-esteem are crucial for those who have been incarcerated.
At Mates Inn, the waiters do show poise and aplomb, even when dealing with soda spills and other obvious mishaps.
Rahsaan Wise doesn't crack a smile or smirk when asked about the Coke he mopped up earlier. He knows how embarrassing such situations are to diners.
Once, he explains, he was trying to get ketchup out of a bottle and instead got it on a woman's blouse.
"I didn't know what to do," he says. "Then I cracked a smile. I blushed. [I said] 'Oops.' I felt more relaxed when she said, 'It's OK, it's nothing.' "
That experience helped expand Mr. Wise's view of his job. He doesn't just wait on customers, he says; he tries to improve the environment.
"Sometimes they come in gloomy, under the weather, I try to say something to cheer them up," he says.
Even when that doesn't work, he enjoys the work. "Bringing them food makes me happy, makes me feel like I've done something good."
Wise doesn't know what kind of job he'll pursue when he's released in January. Yet as he heads back to the kitchen to complete another task, he emphasizes the importance of good communication skills - which he has learned by working at Mates Inn. "They play a big part in any job," he says. "They're important in life, period."