Before she started working here, Hightower had never heard of a trout tostada, much less enjoyed it. She also never thought she’d apply for a job without getting judged for the felony DUI conviction on her record; when she’d tried in the past, things would get awkward. (“Oh, that position is no longer available,” she recalls.) But at Cala, there wasn’t any awkwardness; there was just opportunity. “And to have an opportunity without judgement,” Hightower says, “was pretty amazing.”
Opened in 2015, Cala is the first U.S. restaurant from Gabriela Cámara, a legendary restaurateur in her native Mexico City. Back in Mexico, Cámara says, she has never hesitated to hire people with troubled pasts. “In restaurants, you always hire people who have issues,” she points out. “Restaurants take everybody in.” So when Rosenbush, who had previously worked in Berkeley’s Prison Law Office, approached her about hiring people with conviction histories, Cámara was game. But her open-mindedness was born as much from pragmatism as compassion: Thanks to San Francisco’s labor shortage and high cost of living, finding loyal, dedicated employees is tough. “We needed people who could give good service,” Cámara says. “It’s not just because I’m a good person. If you have staff who know how important they are, they’re more likely to do a better job.”
To find employees, Rosenbush and Cámara reached out to San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department and the Delancey Street Foundation, a nonprofit that offers residential rehabilitation services and vocational training for substance abusers and ex-convicts. While some of their new staff had prior restaurant experience, there were others who didn’t know the difference between sparkling and still water. Another didn’t know wine is made from grapes.