Restorative Partners held a ribbon cutting at the opening of 'The Bridge Cafe' on Jan. 25, 2023. Credit: Lauren Yoon | Courtesy

Jason Hunter has opened a new cafe downtown as head chef — less than a decade after facing a 12-year sentence in the San Luis Obispo County Jail.

After leaving the military in 1998, a serious PTSD diagnosis led him down a “dark path” of drug and alcohol addiction, which resulted in his arrest and mounting jail sentences. It was in 2013, during a Sunday church program at the Men’s Honor Farm, where he met the founder of Restorative Partners, Sister Theresa Harpin.

“She’s my angel,” he said. “I call her my angel. She saved my life.”

Now, Hunter and the rest of Restorative Partners has opened the county’s first social enterprise, Bridge Cafe, on Jan. 25. The cafe gives justice-involved residents of SLO County (individuals who have been incarcerated) an opportunity to train for job reentry.

Hunter met Sister Theresa halfway through his sentence, when he decided to appeal to the court. He was able to obtain a split sentence on the term that he would get sent to the VVSD (Veterans Village of San Diego) and complete a year’s residency, which he surpassed by six months.

In San Diego, Hunter discovered Kitchens For Good, a 13-week culinary program that teaches formerly incarcerated individuals basic cooking and life skills. This inspired his two-year education at the San Diego Culinary Institute – paid for by the Veteran Affairs – and led to his current employment with Restorative Partners, a nonprofit in SLO County that is trying to transform criminal justice.

Speakers such as District Attorney Dan Dow, District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg, and State Senate’s Clint Weirick expressed their excitement at the grand opening, as attendees partook in an array of free appetizers and desserts.

“While we’ve been able to change their lives, they’re going to change our lives, too. They have so much to give to us,” Ortiz-Legg said of the cafe’s employees. “We’re going to continue to grow the opportunities for folks who’ve had challenges–who’ve had real, unfortunate situations, and we do this together. We do it as a community.”

Bridge Cafe was in the making ever since Sister Theresa founded Restorative Partners and finally brought to life by a partnership with Cuesta College. The trainees get a chance to practice real-life culinary experience starting Jan. 25. The cafe, conjoined with the County Government Center, officially opened downtown on Monterey Street.

The menu consists of breakfast items, including a variety of bowls, along with sandwiches, burgers, soups and salads for lunch. They also provide “The Vegan Burger” with a beyond meat patty for those with dietary restrictions. Besides hot foods, the cafe will also have several baked goods, grab-n-go’s, and sides and spreads.

Blanco stated that employing justice-involved people within SLO’s community was a niche that needed filling and that the cafe is a way to grow partnerships with other organizations not related to incarceration.

“With employment, people get more of a sense of identity and purpose,” Blanco said. “That’s why we wanted to open this social enterprise and provide the opportunity to give employment to these individuals without questions in regards to their previous history.” 

Employment will provide justice-involved employees with the county’s minimum wage of $15 per hour as they complete their 75 hours of workforce experience along with in-person lectures at Cuesta, another part of Restorative Partners’ Culinary Training & Internship Program (CTIP). This one-semester program is also completely paid for by fundraising and grant money provided by the county.

The initiative will provide students with a certificate of achievement in culinary arts, but Blanco and Hunter have a more encompassing goal for their employees. “I want to give them the confidence to apply for bigger roles and bigger kitchens in the area where all people are supportive,” Blanco said, along with “the confidence to do their jobs.” 

There has been no pushback from the county, both at the community and government levels. If there was any, it would be from neighbors concerned about their proximity to one of Restorative Partners’ five sober living homes, Blanco said.

“Whether people understand it or not, anybody who has been incarcerated, anybody who has been in the justice-involved community, comes back to the community,” Restorative Partners Board of Directors member Traci Kessler said. “It’s credible, organic, farm-to-table food that we’re all going to be able to enjoy because we have given these justice-involved individuals an opportunity to develop their skills.”

Kessler works as a compliance officer with sheriff’s departments throughout the state, after retiring as a deputy at the SLO County Jail. 

Her family’s past of substance abuse and mental illness, in addition to witnessing young women cycling in and out of the system, pushed her to continue a career in law enforcement and eventually meet Sister Theresa.

After a night of painful stories told by female parolees who had been trafficked, Kessler knew she had to work alongside Sister Theresa.

“In uniform, in the middle of the jail, I broke down in tears, and I said, ‘I can’t—it was too painful to hear and I cannot process this,” Kessler recalled. “And she just wrapped me [up], just gave me a huge hug, and said, ‘We’ll work together and affect a change.’ And at that moment I knew that I had to work and be a part of this movement of healing.”

Sister Theresa launched Restorative Partners in 2011, after Assembly Bill 109, or the Prison Realignment Act, went into effect and prisoners had to serve their time in county jail instead of state prison.

She had a vision for in-custody programming, which she would inform based on her life’s work in social and restorative justice. The organization serves the SLO County Jail, Juvenile Hall, Honor Farm and the California Mens’ Colony (CMC) state prison.

The goal of Restorative Partners is to reduce recidivism, which is the tendency of convicted criminals to reoffend, in addition to rehabilitating incarcerated individuals for integration back into their communities. This rehabilitation is achieved through a multitude of initiatives, including housing in free, sober living homes, mentorship opportunities and job reentry training.

Hunter remembers being stuck in the “revolving door” between addiction and incarceration. “If it wasn’t for this organization, I’d still be in prison,” Hunter said. “Or dead. One or the other.”

Hunter’s prosecutor, Kelly Manderino, who still works at the District Attorney’s office, is now long-time friends with Hunter, who reconnected with her after his graduation from the Veterans’ Village. She encourages Cal Poly students to reach out to Restorative Partners and get involved, whether it be through volunteering or just visiting the cafe.

“This is the future of what the criminal justice system should be. It’s not incarceration, but rehabilitation,” Manderino said.

Blanco and Hunter said they hope to see other social enterprises breaking through in the county after The Bridge Cafe. Shalimar Restaurant and Laguna Middle School currently employ clients from Restorative Partners, but Blanco said he hopes a new marketing team will expand the program’s reach even further.

Although Hunter had tons of red tape to get through, such as the addition of a brand new hood to the kitchen, a full remodel of the building and completely new equipment for the cafe, he is excited to change the patterns of life which he used to live. The new business is located in the heart of Downtown SLO at 1074 Higuera St.

“This place is gonna change lives and give people a chance to be something that they haven’t been in years,” Hunter said.