From Prison Cell to Award-Winning Restaurant

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Anthony Leonardi poured a glass of water and sat down at the bar at Fish On.

He tugged at his baseball hat, which had the words, "SoDel Concepts," stitched across the front.

He finished his glass and headed back to the kitchen to prepare for the dinner rush. Six years ago, the Wilmington native had a better shot at a life behind bars than ever setting foot in one of SoDel Concepts' restaurants, let alone work in one.

The prestigious company owns nine dining establishments in Ocean View, Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island, Rehoboth Beach and Lewes, as well as a catering company, the food truck Big Thunder Roadside Kitchen and its hospitality consulting and management divisions.

In addition to respect from the community, the southern Delaware restaurant group has earned a long-standing reputation for encouraging redemption and generously rewarding perseverance and grit. Leonardi is the latest to see it first hand.

When he got out of prison in April 2014, Scott Kammerer, the president and CEO gave him a job and a shot at a better life.

"This company was built on second chances," Kammerer said. "It has been a pleasure to watch Anthony grow and develop into an outstanding part of the SoDel family."

Leonardi was 19 years old when he started using.

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He describes his life back then as, "a dark, downward spiral," with lying, manipulating, stealing and cheating to accompany the drug use. He couldn’t keep a job, and was in and out of rehabilitative treatment for nearly four years.

His luck finally ran out after he robbed a couple of apartments, was arrested, and sent to Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington.

It was there, that Leonardi felt the lowest he ever had in his life.

And it was also there, that he started to have hope — all thanks to a special culinary program.

The Food Bank of Delaware founded its culinary program in early 2000.

It was the first food bank in the nation to offer a culinary school, and since its conception, has graduated more than 490 students.

Other food banks have followed in Delaware's footsteps, and now more than 30 across the country offer similar programs.

Chad Robinson, director of strategic initiatives at the Food Bank of Delaware, said the mission is two-fold.

"First, students are taught skills that are highly desirable to employers in the food industry," he said. "And second, that these newly developed skills have the potential to lead to real jobs that can provide job security and economic sustainability."

In 2014, the Food Bank of Delaware expanded its culinary program with Sussex Community Corrections in Georgetown, to offer inmates with work release eligibility a chance to participate.

Leonardi was among the 13 chosen for the inaugural class.

The school's 14-week program included three months of hands-on training in basic and high-end cooking techniques, safe food handling, and life skills. The last two weeks included placement in a paid internship at a local restaurant, food service or catering company.

By graduation, nearly all of the students had secured employment.

Robinson believes it is because the program allowed the inmates to work, learn, and grow as a team, and more importantly, as individuals.

"Many of them sat in a cell, every day, wondering what they were going to do when they got out," he said. "For a lot of them, all they thought they had, or all they would ever have, is what got them in there in the first place."

The program, he said, sought to destroy that type of thinking.

"We treated them like individuals, not criminals," Robinson said. "We gave them encouragement and the opportunity to change their situation. The ones that succeeded were the ones who wanted to."

One of the early advocates of culinary education through the Food Bank and the Delaware prison system was the late Matt Haley. Even now, his company, SoDel Concepts, continues that support.

Much like many of the employees he hired, Haley's past was checkered with drug use and prison time.

After being released, he got a job in a restaurant and had the opportunity to develop essential cooking skills. He eventually opened his own, the first of many in southern Delaware, and later credited his success as a restaurateur to the job he was given as an ex-con.

Delaware Department of Correction Commissioner Robert Coupe remembers meeting a persuasive Haley shortly after he was appointed to the state position.

"We connected immediately," said Coupe. "The more I listened to his story, the more I saw how that job changed his life."

The state now offers several culinary training programs for inmates, including one at the Sussex County Community Corrections Center in Georgetown. Inmates who successfully complete the programs are encouraged to pursue more culinary training at the Food Bank or other institutions.

"They are learning skills they can use for the rest of their lives," he said. "The hope is that they will build confidence and pride within themselves at the same time. The culinary program is not a cure to addiction or a means to erase the past — but it has proven it can lead them to a brighter future."

When Leonardi was accepted into the Food Bank of Delaware's culinary program, he had no idea what to expect.

He hardly had any experience in the kitchen, but luckily, had an open mind.

"I kept telling myself this was my opportunity to change things, and I just ran with it," he said.

Leonardi applied himself and learned as much as he could — enough to land an internship with SoDel Concepts, and eventually, a job with the company full time.

Since starting in April 2014, he has been promoted from prep cook and bottling the company's soda line — Matt's Homemade Soda — to sous chef for Plate Catering.

He now helps with special events and company dinners, and in March, won the restaurant group's annual Girl Scout cookie competition. SoDel Concepts' president, Scott Kammerer, among many others, expect a long and successful career from him.

"He has a god given gift, combined with a great work ethic and the eye for making really beautiful food," Kammerer said. "Where you come from and what you did before doesn't define you. Anthony has a willingness to be great and has become a valuable teammate who we all respect."

Leonardi isn't the only inmate to come out of the culinary program with a success story. Nearly two dozen who participated secured jobs in local restaurants.

Kevin Williams, who now cooks at Blackwall Hitch in Rehoboth Beach, said the culinary school, "saved his life."

Others, like Richard Pineda and Kelly Halliday, were never incarcerated, but still participated with students who had a checkered past. The program was, "incredibly eye-opening," said Halliday, who enrolled to refine her skills. She now works at Grandpa Mac on Coastal Highway.

Pienda, who grew up in his family's restaurant, Mariachi's, located in downtown Rehoboth Beach, wanted formal training. He said he was, "amazed," at what he took away from the program and even made several friends, including Leonardi.

"Anthony is very talented — I knew that the first day," he said. "I am looking forward to watching him grow."

As far as planning for the future, Leonardi said he isn't sure where life is going to take him. For the moment, he is enjoying what the Food Bank of Delaware and SoDel Concepts have given back to him: opportunity, responsibility and accountability.

But more importantly, Leonardi is taking his time to rebuild precious relationships that the mistakes of his past nearly destroyed.

"The program didn't just change my life," he said. "It changed everyone's — my friends, my family ... all of the people that I hurt. I've given them a reason to believe in me again, to trust me again. And that has been the most rewarding feeling of all."