Entrepreneur Zorina Price is opening Zys_Oakland, a vegetarian restaurant that will staff ex-offenders. Photo: Zys_Oakland

Zorina Price believes in second chances. It’s why she’s launching Zys_Oakland (pronounced: “Zee’s Oakland”) an upscale vegetarian restaurant in downtown Oakland staffed primarily by the formerly incarcerated.

“I personally have worked among people who have a criminal record,” said Price. The memory is one of pride but also pain. Price had been managing an independent food service provider in New York when the business was bought out by a larger corporation. The new owners required background checks of all employees. When it came to light that one of the staff had a criminal record, Price was forced to fire him. She found out that the employee was unable to find a new job because of his record, and later, returned to jail.

“I felt that was unjust,” she said. “When you serve your time, your time is done. If you’re willing to move forward and be a more productive member of your community then I feel that you should be given that chance.”

Because most independently-owned businesses do not perform background checks, for former offenders looking to rebuild their lives, mom-and-pop-style restaurants can be a gateway back into society. Consistent employment means economic stability, self-sufficiency and career advancement opportunities, which will all give confidence and purpose to this marginalized and disenfranchised group of people. “Small businesses in general provide a good portion of the jobs in our communities,” said Price. “They have more leeway and are more able to pivot [than larger chains].”

Price has begun talks with Center for Employment Opportunities, Oakland Unite, and the Alameda County Reentry and Harder to Employ Program. Hiring the formerly incarcerated is a proven method of safe reentry into society, said Price, pointing to places like upscale restaurant Cala and the DeLancey Street Foundation which operates San Francisco’s Crossroads Cafe, both of which are staffed primarily by employees with criminal records. There is also the precedent of larger, nationally recognized companies like Dave’s Killer Bread, a bakery that was built around the idea of second chances. Price said that Zys_Oakland will hire vetted, nonviolent ex-offenders.

Originally from Ohio, Price has worked in food service in New York, San Francisco and Oakland. For the past year she has been traveling the globe in a mixture of vacation and market research. She spoke to Nosh from Cordoba, Argentina.

For Zys_Oakland, Price has set a high bar. Beyond the hiring model, there’s the additional challenge of figuring out seasonal, hyper-local tasting menus. High-end, sustainable vegetarian cuisine is in short supply in Oakland, according to Price. And with an increase in foodie culture in Oakland, she sees that as a void she’s ready to fill. “Vegetarian cuisine is my lifestyle,” she wrote in a follow up email. “Creating a vegetable-forward restaurant is an organic choice for me.”

But for produce Price is looking much closer than rural Marin and Sonoma Counties for inspiration. She’s not even looking outside city limits. Price is in discussion with City Slicker Farms and Planting Justice to figure out arrangements that could work for Zys’s menu. Additionally, following the model of restaurants like Piedmont Avenue’s Homestead, Price intends to go tipless to ensure employees will earn a living wage.

The opening for Zys is still some time away. Price is looking at fall 2018. She has a location in mind, but is wary of giving away too much other than “downtown Oakland by the post office.” The space is currently under renovation, which the property owners should finish in the spring of next year, after which Price will need to perform some of her own modifications before Zys is ready to open full time.

All that preparation needs money. To that end, Price has launched a Kickstarter campaign. At the time of publication, the project was still about $94,000 short of a $110,000 goal with only 12 days remaining. Price is undeterred, however.

“I’m confident,” said Price. “I’ve been reaching out to friends and family, and they’re supportive and reaching out to their networks as well.” Price has also been in discussion with private investors. Kickstarter is only one small part of her fundraising efforts.

“How the project comes to life is less important to me than that it comes to life,” said Price. “The main goal is to make this happen.”

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Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.