Joshua Jarvis, the founder of Wing Shack, is using his experience of prison to direct ex-offenders' efforts towards a new career path in hospitality. Emma Lake meets him.
Joshua Jarvis founded Wing Shack in 2017, when he and two friends opened their first restaurant specialising in chicken wings in Loughton, east London. The business now has three sites, employs around 20 people and enjoys something of a cult following among the capital's chicken wing fans.
But, Jarvis' success story hit a stumbling block last year, when a historic offence of perverting the course of justice caught up with him and he spent six months in south London's HMP Isis.
While serving his sentence he was struck by the untapped potential of his fellow inmates and, following his release, he is working with industry charities Only A Pavement Away and Fred Sirieix's the Right Course to help show both ex-offenders and hospitality employers the benefits of working together.
Jarvis says: "It wasn't ideal. It was for an offence I had committed many years ago that had come back to haunt me. I was in a position where I'd already changed my life around, and I'm clearly not making those mistakes any more, but it was a lesson that in life you can't cut corners. Now I want to use that experience as a positive and since coming out of prison I've made sure to support people.
Now I want to use that experience as a positive and since coming out of prison I've made sure to support people
"I was allowed to wear my Wing Shack T-shirts in there – and so many people were coming up to me saying, ‘oh, yeah, I know Wing Shack, I've been to Wing Shack'. It was crazy. When I said I owned it, they were shocked and asked ‘what the hell are you doing here?'.
"I told them: ‘It can happen, it can happen to anyone. It doesn't matter what position you're at in life, if you make mistakes or do certain things, you are going to end up in places like this'. A lot of people inside have an interest in food, because one of the main things everyone does is cook and eat, so I'm trying to tell them to use the energy they've been putting into things that are negative into something constructive instead."
Jarvis believes the skills ex-offenders may have honed through criminality could be hugely beneficial to potential employers: "A lot of them, even though they've been committing crimes, have been successful in terms of making a living," he explains. "If they transferred that energy into something positive, they would also be successful at that. That is what I was trying to help them realise.
"A lot of people in there have dealt drugs and things like that. It's the same fundamentals as having a legitimate business or restaurant: buying a product, marketing it and selling it. When I tell them that, they say, ‘oh my days, it's so true, I'm already doing that'."
The restaurateur is explicit that without the chance of employment, it's highly likely former prisoners will reoffend, but, equally, he believes that giving a chance of employment and breaking the feeling of being stigmatised can reap huge rewards.
He adds: "Their mentality is that when they come out they're not going to be able to get a job, so they'll go back to what they know, which is crime. They feel like they have no opportunities.
"Even for me to say ‘I've been to prison', could feel like a stigma. That's why I feel it's very important to give them opportunities. I want to show them there's a second chance.
"A lot of them have the mentality and the drive and the focus – it's just on the wrong thing. If we can get them to focus on the right thing, they'll be the best employees. They are untapped and it's about giving them the opportunity. If employers looked to give people opportunities, it would make them feel a part of society; give them something to work on and it will stop people reoffending."
Jarvis's plans include giving ex-offenders jobs within Wing Shack, speaking at Only A Pavement Away's conferences and creating videos with the Right Course, all to showcase the opportunities within the hospitality industry and provide inspiration to pursue a rewarding career path.
Wing Shack takes flight
Joshua Jarvis had been nursing the idea of opening a chicken wing restaurant in London since he was a teenager.
A trip to the US to watch a friend box saw him research sites around New York, cementing his vision and desire. He explains: "When I was in New York I went to a few wing places, I went to Wingstop and the food was good, but it just felt like a KFC, it wasn't really a vibe. I really wanted to create my own brand in London."
When he returned home a friend got in touch to say his dad needed someone to take over the lease of a coffee shop in Loughton. Following some discussion about the vision for the brand, Jarvis had a site and a hospitality mentor too.
He explains that the opening team "learned as we went on and got stuck in".
The business has now expanded to Clerkenwell, as well as opening a delivery kitchen and pub residency in Bethnal Green and running a pop-up at Selfridges every Saturday and Sunday.
Following the coronavirus lockdown, Jarvis is staying optimistic and is keen to diversify revenue streams, with a Wing Shack fashion line in the offing.
He adds: "Obviously we're in a recession, but I feel like if you manage to get through this there is light at the end of the tunnel. It's just about streamlining, keeping things tight and taking opportunities when they do come up."
Photography: Daniel Ogulewicz
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