Workers just out of prison or on furloughs are hired by tough, but kindhearted lunch wagon owners
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 28, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 11:15 a.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014
Chopping an onion, washing dishes and operating a cash register are job tasks at Simply Ono, a mobile food business. But those tasks also are a form of corporate giving for the catering and lunch wagon operator on Oahu.
For nearly a decade, Simply Ono has hired individuals struggling to rebound from difficulties — typically drugs — and to stay off the streets or out of prison.
This form of giving back to the community is not high-profile. There are no public presentations of blown-up copies of checks.
It's also tough. The success rate is low, and just trying is often difficult.
But personally helping someone get back on his or her feet is a powerful reward.
There is also a broader result of helping reduce the burden on society from its need to incarcerate or support unproductive citizens.
"When they do good, I feel like a proud papa," said Harris Sukita, a co-owner of Kalihi-based Simply Ono.
The program for Simply Ono started eight or nine years ago when one of its regular customers, a counselor at nonprofit service provider Alu Like, suggested hiring some of the organization's clients with such needs.
Sukita said he initially declined. "I didn't know anything about Drug Court," he recalled. But later, he changed his mind, and over the years has worked with several service providers that also included TJ Mahoney & Associates and the state Department of Public Safety.
"Somebody's got to give them a chance," he said.
Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said more companies willing to give people a chance, including former inmates and inmates still in custody who are in the state's work furlough program, are needed.
"We are in need of more employers that want to hire former inmates," she said. "Our furlough program has a few businesses that consistently hire our inmates. But we could always use more."
For Simply Ono, participating in such programs provides a significant portion of the company's workforce, which comprises five people including Sukita and co-owner Cora Stevens.
Sukita said he tries to treat program employees like family. But he also applies a stern one-chance policy. "If you screw up, you're out," he explained. "If you don't show up, you're done."
This stance hasn't always endeared him with some in the rehabilitation community. But he said he wants to give chances to people who are committed to work hard to turn their life around.
"My objective is I want to see them become productive, and not be a burden on society," he said.
Unfortunately, the success rate Sukita has experienced is low. He estimates that of 75 to 100 employees he's had over the years through various rehabilitation programs, only about four or five rebounded while they were working for him. Some hires stayed on the job five hours. Others caused trouble. But the ones who succeed make him proud.
One hire has been working for Simply Ono for five years, and started her own shave-ice truck business. One former employee who had been in prison for 10 years worked at Simply Ono before moving to Hawaii island and has done well, according to Sukita. "We gave him a chance, and he totally turned his life around," he said.
There often is a financial incentive to do such work. Sometimes, rehabilitation programs subsidize part of the wage for a participating employer. In other cases, there can be tax benefits.
Sukita said he pays employees the same wage regardless of whether they are from a rehabilitation program. Skills learned on the job — from cutting fish and cooking to washing dishes and running a cash register — are what Sukita views as bigger keys for program participants to make a transition to higher-skilled and higher-paying jobs.
"I want them to learn everything," he said. Sukita said he also tries to help out program participants in other ways, such as letting them take home leftover food, staying in a company-owned apartment or borrowing a car on occasion.
Sukita has his hands full running Simply Ono, but he also has a dream to one day start another business — maybe a small sandwich shop or cafe — with a group of what he calls his "graduates."