By Ashley Kohler and Charlotte Eriksen
The stench of Marlboro Red cigarettes waves through the air, plastic bottles and paper food cartons scatter the grassy floor beneath the picnic tables. The hot sun beams over the oddly quaint hot dog business.
Felony Franks, located at 229 S. Western Avenue, serves its trademark “misdemeanor wiener” and other jail-themed menu items through a bulletproof revolving glass window. The jail food gimmick is catchy, but the hot dog hut story is real. Felony Franks owner, Jim Andrews, 64, strictly employs his hot dog joint with ex-cons.
Andrews has received negative criticism from neighbors since his opening in July 2009, including Alderman Bob Fioretti, who publicly denounced the business and would not approve a curb cut for a drive-thru or sign permit.
Nevertheless, Andrews hopes to further develop and expand his business, promoting the Felony Franks’ motto that felon work harder and everyone deserves a second chance in life.
“I had my setbacks with the city,” Andrews said. “Alderman [Bob] Fioretti does not like the name. [He] came right out on the radio and said he’s not going to give me a sign permit…[he] said he would not give me a curb cut [for a drive-thru] … and then he said he was going to make it as difficult as he can for me to open.
“Well you know what? I’m here. I’m open. We’re doing business.”
Fioretti’s office refused to respond to several interview requests for this story.
Andrews said he needs to raise more money to open another Felony Franks location in Chicago, and has received more than 1,600 resumes and 100 requests for franchise information.
“We have sent out 11 packages to different parts of the country,” he said. “We’ve sent out contracts to Baltimore, Maryland, Rhode Island, three in California, Missouri, Kentucky, Mississippi and two in Florida.”
Darnell Mardis, 44, is a father and ex-felon who looked for jobs three years after he got out of prison in 2006 due to drug charges. Mardis couldn’t find anything because of his criminal background until Andrews opened Felony Franks.
“No money for three years,” Mardis said, wearing his red Felony Franks T-shirt.
Mardis, who was referred to Andrews through the Community Assistance Program (CAPS), said he called Andrews every week for three years to check in and try to secure a job at Felony Franks.
Video: Darnell Mardis interview
Mardis said that a lot of former prisoners give up hope when they can’t find a job.
“I did find one job at a nursing home,” he said. “I worked for one week, [and] they fired me because of my background. At that point, I was just borrowing money for a bus pass to try and find a job.”
Although Jim Andrews is legally blind, he had a clear vision when opening Felony Franks, his intention–creating jobs for ex-offenders.
“They deserve a second chance, if society beats them down and don’t give them a second chance, they’re going back to jail,” Andrews said. “They’re going to do what they know how to do…sell drugs, steal your purse.”
Video: Jim Andrews interview
Andrews said that workers like Darnell Mardis have encouraged him.
“He’s very focused on the mission [here]…he’s here for the same reason I am: to help others,” Andrews said. The oversized man sits outside his hot dog joint smoking a cigarette while squinting through his small-rimmed glasses.
Andrews started with the idea of “how can we help” ex-offenders? “How much money could we raise? How many hot dog stands could we open with them and how many people could we employ? How many people can we create jobs for?”
Right now, it’s only five. Felony Franks is open seven days a week and averages 100-200 customers daily. Mardis is the team leader of four other employees and works up to 55 hours a week for $8 per hour, according to manager Jerry Tassos, 50. “I need to raise more money to create more jobs,” Andrews said.
Andrews, owner of Andrews Paper Company, said that about ten years ago, he had some problems with his paper business. “I’d send guys out on deliveries…they’d collect cash—wouldn’t come back…All kinds of things—guys smoking marijuana and crack in the warehouse…”
A year later, Jim hired an ex-con who worked for Andrews Paper Company for three months, relapsed, and went back to jail for 61 days. The felon then got out of prison and returned to work for Andrews. He has now been with the paper company for over nine years, owns a condo, and has custody over his daughter.
Obama’s campaign said, “we need to get creative…we need to create jobs,” Andrews said. “We took it a step beyond that and at felony franks, all we hire is ex-offenders. The concentration of felons in the 2nd Ward is one of the highest in Chicago.
City housing projects surround Felony Franks and the West Town neighborhood. Jim says it is not out of sympathy that he hires cons.
“I don’t have sympathy for them. I treat them like non-offenders. We talk about life is on the inside and how much better it is on the outside.”
Felony Franks still doesn’t have their sign, but through the City of Chicago Amnesty Program, Andrews has elected to put a sign, 8 feet by 11 feet, on the corner of his property. This way, there is no need for the Alderman’s signature.
Although Felony Franks is known for its jail images of cement bars, black and white striped jumpsuits and bulletproof glass, the business gives new opportunities for cons to have a real life on the outside.
For Darnell Mardis, it is a chance to make a living and support his 3-year-old son, so he didn’t mind when customers would knock on the ordering window and ask, “what were you locked up for?”
“When we first opened, people would come and say ‘what were you locked up for?’” Mardis said. He laughed and mimicked his response, “nothing. “It is what it is…no more selling drugs,” he said. “I do my work right. I know what needs to be done.”