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Lincoln nonprofit perfecting the Cuban sandwich in an effort to end recidivism

The Lincoln Journal Star - 4/14/2024

Apr. 14—In Bill Radke's world, rehabilitation and recidivism are served with heaping portions of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and sometimes salami on homemade Cuban bread.

Oh, and don't forget the onions — lots of onions, caramelized.

The onions — another ingredient in the Cuban sandwiches Ybor is selling — are the foundation for Radke's second-chance kitchen program, which trains formerly incarcerated people in the basics of working in a restaurant kitchen.

With counseling and commitment, they are set up for a successful return to society.

But make no mistake, it all starts with the onions.

"In the restaurant world, your skills build on themselves," Radke said. "So it's really about learning one skill and then learning to do it over and over and over again.

"... No one gets excited about the days we're caramelizing onions. You're just cutting onions. Your eyes start to sting and it's very repetitive."

It's a commitment to the process, which most times can be mundane, routine, repetitious and at times a little irritating.

And in that regard, caramelizing onions can sometimes imitate life.

The Historic Haymarket district smelled of onions cooking on Wednesday morning as workers were inside JTK Cuisine & Cocktails, 201 N. Seventh St., chopping 50 pounds worth and then cooking them down and packaging them for a weekend popup kitchen — one of 40 Ybor will do in the community between now and the end of the calendar year.

Last month, the Ybor crew — Radke, the four former inmates enrolled in the six-month program, and a handful of volunteers — sold 191 Cuban sandwiches in 90 minutes at Zipline Brewing's south Lincoln beer hall.

That kind of volume is an achievement for the most seasoned kitchen staff. For a group that's learning the ins and outs of the restaurant industry, it might be called a miracle.

At Ybor, it was a reason to celebrate.

"That was a great day," said Cody Shafer, a 26-year-old former inmate who says Radke's Ybor program — named for a Tampa, Florida, neighborhood made famous by its cuisine — has changed his life.

The Cuban sandwich comes with its share of symbolism, Radke says. Created by immigrants, the sandwich mixes cultures, which provides a glimpse at the power of blending backgrounds and collaborative ideas to create something positive.

"It's a good sandwich," Shafer said. "I know what I'm doing is good because people are recognizing it. These are really good sandwiches. We're taking pride in what we're doing.

"It's about continuing that message."

All profits from the frequent popups go toward a capital fund aimed at Ybor someday purchasing its own brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Currently, JTK gives them the workspace to do their prep work, but Radke can envision a day when having a permanent home would allow the program to expand its services.

Through the help of private donations and grant money, the program provides work, on-the-job training and a living wage for people in need of a second chance.

One of Ybor's recent graduates opted not to go into the restaurant industry and instead took a job at Purina for $28.

"I see that as a huge win," Radke said. "We want people to launch culinary careers and that is our mission, but also a big part of it is helping people become good employees, contributing employees who create positive cultures, on the teams, wherever they are."

Ybor mentors and coaches its trainees in every aspect of life, while also providing career readiness and networking that could lead to long-term employment once they've completed the program, which launched in 2021.

Ybor is a component of Good Life Community Development, which identifies and assists at-risk individuals through coaching, a series of programs and providing them with the tools and networking relationships needed to fix a potential problem before it becomes catastrophic.

Originally, the Ybor concept was just one of the tools being provided, but with time, Radke, Good Life's executive director, began to recognize that many of those in need were formerly incarcerated people.

"We began to see how big of a need this was in our community," Radke said.

With three state correctional facilities already in the Lincoln area and plans for another, Radke pointed out that Nebraska has evolved into "the most overcrowded prison system in America."

"The need was right on our doorstep," said Radke, whose focus was educating at-risk people on issues like hunger, evictions, employment and financial literacy. "We decided to hone our focus specifically with people navigating life after incarceration and just helping with reentry."

Ybor served its first Cuban sandwich just as the world started to reopen following the pandemic. In doing so, it started its mission toward finding ways to prevent a person's worst moment — one that caused them to be put behind bars — from becoming their legacy.

"A lot of people tend to just look at your name, look at your record and say, 'oh, you're a bad person,'" Shafer said. "With this program, they look at the human as a whole. It's not where you're coming from, but where you're going.

"We don't call each other by our names or put labels on each other. The only label is 'chef.' That gives positive recognition."

Shafer, a Seward native, has bought into Radke's recipe for rehabilitation. After being incarcerated for two years on drug charges, he is in his final month of the program and is contemplating his next move.

By going through Ybor, he'll have a foot in the door — a solid endorsement, six months of counseling and a food handler's license, which for many is that first hurdle — to working in the restaurant industry.

However, Shafer believes so much in what Radke is doing, he might want to join Ybor "in kind of a mentoring type of role."

"It's going to be easier to find that next step, that next opportunity in the culinary field with the training and with the recognition we're getting from Ybor," he said. "But I would like to transition to do something similar to what Bill is doing."

It's a pay-it-forward approach for Shafer who says his life was turned around the day he heard Radke interviewed on a local radio show and immediately signed up for Ybor.

If Shafer's life was turned around by Ybor, Dave, who is on probation and can't use his last name so as not to revictimize the woman he sexually assaulted a decade ago, says his life was saved by the seven-year prison sentence he served.

"I did it and I regret it," said the 39-year-old Texas native. "I regret it every day. I really do."

Dave says he was heavy into drugs. He has lived through two overdoses and was destined for another, he said.

"I got sentenced and I looked at the judge and said, 'you just saved my life,'" he said. "I knew I was going back down that road. I knew I needed help and it just so happens that prison saved my life."

His first kitchen job was at Arby's, and there's a possibility of returning there — this one in Ogallala — when his probation comes to an end in July.

"I absolutely enjoy the kitchen," he said. "I absolutely love to cook."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or

On Twitter @psangimino


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