At Felony Franks, Only Ex-Cons Need Apply

PHOTO: Felony Franks fast food in ChicagoMaria Pentaris
Felony Franks, Home of the Misdemeanor Weiner, opened in Chicago July 13, 2009. The hot dog stand employs a staff of ex-offenders looking to improve their lives.

In a city where the hot dog is top dog and restaurants are a dime a dozen, there's one place in Chicago that stands out -- a joint whose workers have all been in The Joint.

It's called Felony Franks, Home of the Misdemeanor Wiener.

"Our food is so good it is criminal," said owner Jim Andrews.

Andrews is not an ex-con, but as a longtime business owner, he has seen how tough it is for felons to find work. So when he opened Felony Franks July 13, 2009, he hired 10 ex-offenders whose past crimes have ranged from drug possession to armed robbery. His goal is to ease the stigma surrounding those rebuilding their lives after serving time.

"They want to make a difference in society," said Andrews. "They need help. Somebody has to help them. Why not me?"

The workers earn $8 an hour, plus time-and-a-half for overtime. All the profits will be split between a charity to help ex-offenders and a profit-sharing plan for his employees.

Before landing a job at Felony Franks, Lydon Walker was unemployed for a year and a half. A father of five, he said he didn't know what he'd do without the job.

"I might be back gangbanging or something or selling drugs," said Walker.

At the restaurant, each order comes with a side of humor. Customers place their order or "plea their case" at a glass-enclosed counter. Besides hot dogs, the menu includes Probation Burgers, Burglar Beef, Freedom Fries and Guilty Gyros.

There are also colorful terms for how you eat your food. If you dine in, you're "serving time." If you get your food to go, you're "out on good behavior."

But not everyone is laughing. Some, including the local councilman, like the idea of helping ex-cons but dislike the restaurant's prison theme.

"A felony means time behind bars," said Chicago Second Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti. "We shouldn't be glorifying felonies in this day and age."

But Andrews says Felony Franks is here to stay.

"If it was called Jim's Hot Dogs, it would just be another hot dog stand," he said. "Our society has branded ex-offenders as they're no good for the community. The community needs to open their eyes."