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It’s Friday night at 9 p.m. and a group of guys are game-planning their night out. But they’re not headed to dinner or drinks. Rather, they’re slated to clean the kitchens at food incubator Union Kitchen. They do this every Friday as employees of a new D.C. business called Clean Decisions, which hires “returning citizens”—the business’ preferred term for individuals recently released from prison.

“There are so many people who are willing to work really hard to re-enter society, but the traditional job market is difficult,” says Clean Decisions co-owner Graham McLaughlin. “You’ve learned to live in prison, which is different than on the outside.”

McLaughlin and co-owner Will Avila launched Clean Decisions in October 2014. Avila is a “returning citizen” himself and recruited three other staff members through word-of-mouth. McLaughlin and Avila share a row home with another Clean Decisions staff member, so that’s where they convene for pre-shift meetings before gigs like their recurring job at Union Kitchen.

“We accomplish a checklist of cleaning and degreasing ovens and grills, sanitizing freezers, power-washing floors, and polishing everything to a shine,” McLaughlin says. “It’s soup to nuts—you hire us, and we’ll be like elves. You come in the next morning, and everything’s perfect.” 

Avila always supervises the team, including 24-year-old staff member Melvin Andrade. “Will and Clean Decisions have taught me skills I never had,” Andrade says. “I now know how to clean a grill and paint from them teaching me in preparation to go out on jobs with them.”

Getting elbow deep in kitchen grease is far from glamorous work, but it gives “returning citizens” work history that makes it possible for them to get other jobs in the future. Clean Decisions operates as a for-profit business, rather than a nonprofit organization, which is important to some of their clients.

“It’s not a charity. It’s a business, and that’s important to us,” says Union Kitchen co-founder Cullen Gilchrist. “We want a professionally cleaned kitchen, not just to feel good inside.”

Gilchrist also says their missions align. “A big part of our work [at Union Kitchen] is job training, putting money into our community, and working with folks who don’t have a good resume or work history,” he says. “These guys are recently out of prison, trying to get back into civilian lifestyle; it was perfect fit.” Gilchrist also likes that they’re affordable, and says he has recommended them to other business owners.

One Eight Distilling Company is another recurring client, and Clean Decisions was also brought on for a one-time deep clean of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Evening Star Cafe. Recently, they’ve started cleaning food trucks, too.

At four months in, it’s too soon to tell how Clean Decisions will evolve. One idea is to serve as a staffing agency of sorts once the participants have been in the program for six months. “We’d connect them to work opportunities and vouch for their work ethic,” McLaughlin says.

They’re also thinking about an apprenticeship model. “We’d help our staff members get their plumbing or HVAC certifications and ideally ask them to come back and train the next generation.” Finally, they’re toying with the idea of fast-tracking staff members into management roles within Clean Decisions as they grow.

Clean Decisions has a role model in nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen. The organization founded in 1989 delivers free meals to those in need and also provides culinary training to people struggling to find employment because of a history of addiction, incarceration, or homelessness. In 2014, 96 people graduated from DCCK’s Culinary Job Training program and 93 percent found jobs.

Photo by Laura Hayes