The New York Times

Home Front - Willy Wonka? Not Exactly. But He Does Change Lives.

Published: April 15, 2007

MICHAEL HOLLEY said he used to count his days left in prison for a manslaughter conviction. Now he counts the days in his first job as a free man.

Mr. Holley, 35, has worked for more than five months at Tumbador Chocolate, a chocolate factory in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn that opened last fall.

"They gave me a shot," said Mr. Holley, who commutes more than an hour each way from Jamaica, Queens, to wrap candy, answer phones and deliver orders. He earned some college credits in prison but is glad to have any job. "It's not like I had a thousand choices," he said.

Tumbador's owner, Michael Altman, has filled most of the low-level jobs at his factory with ex-convicts. It's part of a personal mission to be a good corporate citizen after a successful career as an executive recruiter. Eight of Mr. Altman's 24 employees have served time for violent crimes.

Mr. Altman hired them through Strive, a nonprofit group in East Harlem that offers job counseling and placement services to ex-convicts, the homeless and victims of domestic violence. Tumbador has the largest percentage of Strive workers among the 50 companies with which the group works regularly, said Lizzette Dunn-Barcelona, Strive's executive director.

It has always been hard for ex-convicts to find work. "Most employers will tell you that if they had the preference, they would not hire someone with a criminal record," said Debbie A. Mukamal, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

An applicant with a criminal record was 50 percent less likely to be offered an entry-level job than an applicant without one, and black applicants with criminal records had even less of a chance, according to a study by a Princeton sociology professor published in 2003.

Ex-convicts often face other employment barriers, including poor education and problems at home, Ms. Mukamal said. But those who are ready, and have been through programs like Strive, tend to be good employees, she said. "Given the opportunity to work, they make the best of it," she said.

Strive teaches interviewing skills and workplace behavior. Participants go on job interviews like any other applicant. Once hired, they keep in touch with a Strive counselor, and can seek help with concerns like child care, housing and transportation.

"There is a lot of training and mentoring," said Mr. Altman, who learned about Strive from a friend who serves on its board.

When Tumbador began production, large orders started flowing in for its dark chocolates and chocolate-covered pretzels. The new business was short-handed and called Strive for help, first gaining one employee, then several more.

Tumbador pays entry-level workers $8.50 an hour, without benefits. Employees work a 40-hour week and receive one paid week off after a year. Tumbador gets a tax credit of up to $2,400 per qualified employee for hiring former prisoners under the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit program.

Mr. Altman's biggest challenge as an employer can be to instill certain workplace habits, "like when you are idle, look for something else to do, and that you should say hello and good morning," he said recently at his factory, where the scent of chocolate was everywhere.

There has been some absenteeism. One employee called every morning to say he couldn't make it into work. "It turned out he was in jail in Connecticut for some fight," Mr. Altman said. He was fired.

ANOTHER, Gary Johnson, who said he had served three years for a weapons conviction, stopped showing up. Mr. Altman was disappointed because Mr. Johnson, 28, of the Bronx, had just been promoted to manager of Tumbador's large inventory of chocolate boxes.

Mr. Johnson, whose only other job had been as a porter in a condominium complex, said in an interview that he was overwhelmed by family problems, including the sudden responsibility of caring for his 11-year-old sister. Mr. Altman fired him but reversed his decision when Mr. Johnson asked for another chance.

"I am not a social worker. I cannot be one and run a business," Mr. Altman said. "But I want to help them."

A love of fine food, and an entrepreneurial itch, led Mr. Altman to create Tumbador with Jean-Fran├žois Bonnet, a pastry chef he recruited from Daniel, the French restaurant. Mr. Altman's earlier venture was Chelsea Computer Consultants, a $35 million business he sold in 1999.

Tumbador creates chocolates for companies to sell under their own brand name. They are cropping up on the pillows of luxury hotels, including the Loews Regency on Park Avenue, and at high-end boutiques.

Mr. Johnson has become a model employee. "I love working here," he said. "The company is growing and giving me an opportunity to grow with them. With my education and background, there's not much of an opportunity to be manager of anything.