At the Serving Time Cafe, Utah prison inmates cook up great sandwiches and a future


(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chonsey Leslie dumps an order of fries onto a customer's order. Leslie and her fellow inmates are slammed with a line of customers every day from 11pm to 2pm closing time. Every Monday through Friday, a half-dozen or so Level 4 inmates file out of the Olympus Facility at the Utah State Prison to cook, bake and serve the public at the Serving Time CafŽ. The operation is part of Utah Department of Corrections Industries (UCI) and is aimed at helping inmates return to society.

Draper • If you liked “Orange Is the New Black” television series, you’ll love the Serving Time Cafe in Draper, where female inmates cook up a storm and have a pretty good time, too.

Monday through Friday, a half-dozen or so Level 4 inmates — the most trusted classification — file through the razor-wire fence enclosing the Olympus Facility at the Utah State Prison and cross the street to the small eatery. It’s open to the public — no security clearance necessary — for breakfast beginning at 8 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.

Yes, you can get breakfast all day. But then you’d miss such things as the Prison Blues Burger, or the Parole Violator — a breaded chicken sandwich with onion rings. And you can’t escape without trying the peanut butter brownies — they’re so tasty, they should be labeled contraband.

The menu has dozens of offerings, from Navajo tacos to Reubens on rye, and the prices are right.

Brittney Christensen, 35, is the baker and she really loves it. Wednesday, she was cooking up some cookies made from scratch.

“This adjusts us to society a lot faster,” she said of working in the cafe. “I’m a very social person, so greeting people and seeing the public is very important to me.”

The place has a regular following and would-be diners should get there a little early or face the lunchtime crush. Hunger was in the eyes of folks lined up out the door as the women behind the counter were slinging burgers and french fries like crazy.

Steve Maestas hits the Serving Time Cafe, located at 14072 S. Pony Express Road, at least once a week for lunch.

“A friend said, ‘You gotta try this place,’” Maestas recalled. “And he’s right, the food is so good. The Tater Tots are good, the burgers are good, the tacos are good. Everything is good.”

The operation is part of Utah Department of Corrections Industries (UCI) and is aimed at helping inmates return to society, said supervisor Carolyn Price, a veteran of 28 years at Point of the Mountain.

“A lot of them have low self-esteem,” she explained. “But here, they can see what they are capable of. I try and encourage them and say, ‘Look what you’ve done.’ ”

Many of the women inmates are doing time for crimes in which drugs played a role.

“When they do drugs, they are a different person,” Price explained. “But when they are straight, you can see the potential.”

Working at the cafe beats sitting inside the prison, said Chonsey Leslie, 27, with a big smile. On this day, she’s cooking pork chops and cod and french fries.

The cod is good, she said, but her favorite is the Prison Blues Burger that comes with a layer of blue cheese between two meat patties, topped with sauteed onions.

An infectious grin gives away her feelings about working at the cafe.

“It makes me feel happy,” Leslie said. “It gives me something to look forward to each morning. It helps tremendously.”

Only the most trusted inmates are selected to work at the cafe, said Scott Crowther, the director of UCI. Not only is it a good opportunity for them, he said, but it also gives the public a chance to see inmates as people.

“It helps break down barriers,” Crowther said, “what I call the ‘Big Bad Wolf syndrome.‘ ”

Shacoy Saunders, 33, said she, too, enjoys working at the cafe and the relatively big bucks it pays — $1.65 an hour. Most prison jobs pay much less.

Managing money has been one or her weaknesses, she explained. Now Saunders works to budget her money for the prison commissary, where inmates can buy items found in grocery stores.

Like many inmates, Saunders has been in and out of prison on parole violations and new crimes. It’s difficult, she said, because she is missing her children grow up. She has two: one 15 and one 16.

“We all make bad decisions and some of us get caught,” she said. “Most of us want to change, and what we are trying to do here is find a way to change.”

The menu at the Serving Time Cafe doesn’t include hope, but it’s certainly in the air.