Sharon Richardson had been incarcerated for 18 years when she was granted a visit to the hospital where her mother was in ailing health. This would be the last opportunity for Richardson to say her goodbyes. When she arrived back at the prison, however, she couldn’t have expected what was in store: her friends, women she lovingly now refers to as her sisters, had been allowed to cook an entire meal for her.
“I was so distraught after visiting my mom, the women just let me sit down and talk to them about Mommy,” Richardson said. “A lot of the women had met my mother so we sat there and we ate and we cried. It was food at that moment that seemed to make everything okay. Food really makes a difference.”
Richardson’s love of food and her belief in its ability to foster connection is what now underpins Just Soul, the New York City-based catering company that she founded after her release from prison, and the nonprofit Reentry Rocks, which offers formerly incarcerated survivors of intimate partner violence resources on financial stability as well as mental and emotional support. Richardson took part in an entrepreneurship program where she was given the chance to develop a business concept for a food truck, which evolved into a catering company and a nonprofit organization as unique as its founder’s story.
A rare focus on opportunities for formerly incarcerated women
As a catering company, Just Soul employs formerly incarcerated women, etching out a space for them in a world that places almost endless boundaries on people seeking employment after returning home from jail or prison. According to a 2018 Brookings report, 45% of those released from prison did not have any reported pay in the year after they returned home. Over the course of the pandemic, which has brought rising unemployment across the board, formerly incarcerated people have faced even more difficulty finding jobs.
However, Richardson isn’t just focused on providing women with jobs for today—she also seeks to set them up for the future through business development workshops offered through Reentry Rocks. The organization’s fellowship program guides participants interested in careers in the food industry through three phases that help them build their own for-profit business or 501(c)3. Fellows learn basic tenets of financial literacy, resume building, how to pitch their business, food safety regulations, and more. The first phase places them in an internship with Just Soul Catering where they learn the ins and outs of the food industry, the second helps them hone their personal business plans, and the third focuses on understanding tax law.
Like much of the discourse around mass incarceration, reentry programs—still continue to focus on men despite the fact that women are the fastest-growing incarcerated population. Reentry Rocks offers a rare focus on women—specifically survivors of intimate partner violence. Over 80% of women currently inside prison or jail are survivors of abuse and many are incarcerated as a result of defending themselves against their abusers.
Reentry Rocks’ offerings reflect the complexities of these women’s stories by extending beyond just learning about food safety and gathering the tools for financial independence. The organization also provides free trauma-informed counseling to formerly incarcerated survivors in both private and group settings. Additionally, a creative arts program called “Sentenced to Dance” offers weekly movement classes to help with processing emotions and developing a deeper sense of personal empowerment. Workshop classes have focused on concepts like “restoration and evolution” and “sacrifice and accountability.”
Pivoting in a pandemic
Like other organizations that operated in-person programming, Reentry Rocks had to shift in notable ways through the pandemic, with courses and counseling sessions moving online. For Richardson, an even more dramatic shift has taken place at Just Soul Catering.
Among the many hard truths that the pandemic brought to the fore is the precarity of small businesses and the specific challenges facing formerly incarcerated business owners. Catering businesses particularly shouldered a great deal of loss, especially around the holiday season. According to a survey conducted by the National Association for Catering and Events (NACE) of their roughly 3,300 members, over 75% had “already experienced personal financial hardship through business closures, layoffs, furloughs, and reductions in hours or pay” in the earliest months of the pandemic. NACE Executive Director Lawrence Leonard told The Washington Post in January that “nearly all of the remaining 25% were waiting for one of those things to happen and happen it did, one wave after another throughout 2020.”
While restaurants of all sizes could more seamlessly transition into a takeout only model or, in some cities, modify their spaces to accommodate outdoor dining, catering companies, which depend wholly upon people gathering together, were left in the dark.
Just Soul was far from immune to the impacts of the pandemic and Richardson needed to pivot the company’s approach quickly. In addition to raising money through an online fundraiser, Richardson also began partnering with local New York hospitals and organizations serving the houseless, domestic violence survivors, and other vulnerable populations. The shift allowed Richardson to extend her expertise toward essential workers and those most in need. While it proved far less lucrative than the event catering Just Soul typically focuses on, it did keep the business from completely going under.
“The pandemic shut us down and it was really difficult,” Richardson said. “We had to raise money to survive and we gave that back to the community. So all during COVID, we fed shelters, we fed homeless people, we fed hospitals, we fed essential workers, and that’s what we did with the money and were able to stay afloat.”
Some things are still the same
Just Soul’s culinary offerings have remained the same throughout the pandemic. Richardson infuses her dishes with her own family heritage from the American South and the Caribbean. The unique flavors featured in each menu item are in part a result of trial and error and an openness to constant innovation in the kitchen.
Just Soul’s most popular items are a three-layer, five cheese, baked macaroni and cheese, and a vanilla banana pudding that uses non-traditional spices to remix the classic dessert. Richardson explained that “all of our dishes are signature dishes because we cook with love. Myself and the other ladies who cook with me, we cook like we’re cooking for our families.” In addition to Just Soul’s secret blend of seasonings Richardson also attributes the food’s success to the use of fresh herbs and choosing fresh over packaged, whole black pepper over ground, and specific curry, onion, adobo, and garlic powders over store-bought versions.
As the city has opened back up and Just Soul resumes somewhat normal business operations by returning to catering events only, Richardson has begun thinking of new offerings for consumers who would like a taste of Just Soul but aren’t hosting either large or small scale events. She’s been experimenting with batches of special gravies and sauces with plans to sell them, as well as offering cooking classes as date nights or birthday parties for the general public.
Richardson, who currently operates out of a rented kitchen in Manhattan, also hopes to purchase permanent office and kitchen space so that the catering company and the nonprofit can find a permanent home. She was recently named a finalist for New York City’s David Prize, placing her in the running for $200,000. If she wins, she plans to use the earnings both to purchase an industrial kitchen and provide subsidies for the food handling certifications her Reentry Rocks fellows earn.
“I have been home 11 years after serving a 20-to-life sentence and I think that it’s important to let the world know that it hasn’t been an easy road,” Richardson said. “But I’m so grateful for all the people who believed in me. I have a drive and I have a passion. I have a love for people, a love for food, a love for this work. I’m not bitter about a day that I spent inside. I’m just grateful that I have a story now and a journey [where] I’m taking other people with me.”
In the 12 years since Richardson began her journey with that first meal made for her by the women in her prison unit to help her mourn her mother, the memories of exactly what was on the menu have begun to fade. She remembers chicken, as well as coconut rice, fruit salad, and cake—one of the few celebratory staples the women were allowed to prepare. But the emotional meaning of the moment has been far more indelible than the details of what was on her plate.
“When you taste food that’s made out of love, you can taste it and that’s emotional to me because there’s no sweet, there’s no sour, there’s no salt—it’s just love,” Richardson said. “Whatever love tastes like to a person when they’re eating it when they’re down and out, that’s what I felt and tasted that night. I tasted love.”