Updated Oct 12, 2021 - Food and Drink
Philadelphia chef Kurt Evans provides second chances through food
Chef Kurt Evans speaks to guest during one of his End Mass Incarceration dinners.  Photo Courtesy of Kurt Evans. Photo Credit: Marc Willians
Chef Kurt Evans speaks to guest during one of his End Mass Incarceration dinners. Photo: Marc Williams/courtesy of Kurt Evans

Kurt Evans already has an impressive list of titles: chef, restaurateur, activist and educator.

  • Now, he's turning his focus to creating a pipeline of new culinary experts among formerly incarcerated people in Philadelphia.

Why it matters: Roughly 27% of formerly incarcerated people living in the U.S. are unemployed, according to the latest figures from the Prison Policy Institute. That rate has likely become worse since the pandemic.

State of play: Evans recently signed over his ownership equity of Down North, a neighborhood pizza spot in Strawberry Mansion, to employees.

  • Down North, which opened in March, exclusively employs formerly incarcerated people. Employees are paid above minimum wage, tips are shared, and there aren't hierarchical titles among the team.
  • "Down North was created to be a fair and equitable work environment for formerly incarcerated people," he told Axios. "My plan was never to be the chef at the pizza shop."

Meanwhile, Evans is getting ready to launch Project M.O.R.E in January. It's a 12-week mentorship program for formerly incarcerated food entrepreneurs in Philadelphia.

  • Each entrepreneur who completes the program will receive $3,000 toward their business.

Background: Evans made the connection between food and criminal justice in 2016 when he started using his Instagram to not only show off his talents, but also share information.

  • "Chefs aren't just people in the kitchen anymore," Evans said. "Somebody can look at your food and be like, 'That's great, but what change can you make through the lens of using your food?'"

In 2018, he began hosting the End Mass Incarceration dinner series — bringing together formerly incarcerated people, activists and policymakers.

  • The dinners raise money for bail funds, expungement clinics and criminal justice nonprofits. To date, he's organized 19 in the city and one in Alaska.
  • "Food is an equalizer," he said. "I haven't met too many people that don't like to meet up over food."

What else: Evans is also working on growing Everybody Eats Philly, a nonprofit he and fellow chef Stephanie Willis co-founded in May 2020 during Philadelphia's summer of unrest following the murder of George Floyd.

  • The nonprofit distributes meals and fresh produce in food deserts. He's looking to launch a food truck to help the cause.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Evans signed over his ownership equity of Down North recently.

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