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By Gina Gallagher | Citizens Bank Contributor
Jordan Robarge is used to hearing talk about how people in prison deserve second chances. But the 27-year-old entrepreneur takes it a step further.
“A lot of these people never even had a first chance,” he emphasized.
Jordan is the CEO of Revival Chili, a food trailer that serves chili all over Pittsburgh. In his time at the helm of his business, Jordan has met plenty of people whose past mistakes significantly hindered their ability to find employment. That’s why Jordan has made it part of Revival Chili’s mission to “hire men and women in need of a fair chance at work.” It was that work which prompted Citizens Bank to award the business $20,000 after being named a 2019 Small Business Community Champion.
Why is this cause so important to Jordan? Because his whole business started with a chance he didn’t get.
In 2015, Jordan was well on his way to his dream career. He was a senior in the systems engineering program at the University of Virginia (UVA), applying to some of the top consulting firms in Washington, D.C. Jordan had several interviews and often made it to the final round of the hiring process. He anxiously waited for a job offer to come his way.
It never came.
Some of the companies didn’t even bother to get back to him. Those that did told him why he wouldn’t be receiving an offer: His background check had uncovered an arrest and conviction for underage drinking as a freshman in college.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Jordan said. “It was only a misdemeanor.”
It was, however, enough to keep him from living out the life he’d planned and worked so hard in school to achieve. And it was difficult for Jordan to watch his friends get the jobs he had wanted.
What Jordan didn’t know at the time was that his life was meant to go down a different road.
From the time he was a young child, Jordan loved chili. His mother and father often cooked it for their family when Jordan was a kid. His mom even made extra to bring to their church.
When Jordan went off to college, he found that his fraternity had a chili recipe of its own. So what did Jordan do? He brought that recipe home with him and made healthy modifications to share with friends and family.
Word began spreading about Jordan’s chili. Before long, he was being asked to make it for special events.
“For me, chili is about community,” he said. “It brings people together and puts smiles on their faces.”
The joy he got making his chili powered Jordan to move forward with his life. Realizing he wasn’t going to land that dream engineering job, he started to think about a different venture.
Jordan applied for a fellowship program with Venture for America (VFA), an organization that helps build businesses in urban cities in America. The program offered a two-year salaried fellowship for recent college students seeking to start their own businesses. Students selected would participate in an entrepreneurial training program and then work at a vetted company to gain skills, and later gain access to VFA resources to help them fund their own businesses.
Fortunately for Jordan, he got the fellowship. It was the break he’d been looking for, and Jordan didn’t waste the opportunity.
Jordan was matched with a company in Pittsburgh called Thrill Mill (now known as Ascender). The nonprofit organization provides advice, programming, partnerships, and resources to help early-stage start-ups in the Pittsburgh area, and sponsors the annual Thrival Festival.
In his role with Thrill Mill, Jordan gained valuable knowledge and made some powerful business connections. One organization he connected with was Zero Six Eight, an incubator for people who have been in prison and want to start their own businesses.
Given Jordan’s difficulty in securing employment from his college arrest, he felt a personal connection to their cause.
“Reentry is so hard for people who have come out of jail or prison,” Jordan said. “I wanted to help them, and knew I needed Zero Six Eight’s help.”
Jordan purchased the food trailer to serve chili at events and festivals.
Though his fellowship with VFA was to be two years long, Jordan left Thrill Mill after just one year. Armed with knowledge, business contacts, and a great chili recipe, he began working on his business plan and company.
It would have a unique mission: to serve delicious chili and not only employ people who face barriers to unemployment, but also train them to run their own businesses.
“I wanted to call it Revival Chili,” Jordan said, “because we were reviving people’s lives.”
After securing funding for business, Jordan was ready to move Revival Chili onto the next step. He purchased a food trailer he could use to serve his chili at events and festivals.
When it came time to hire employees, Jordan went back to Zero Six Eight. He was intent on offering more than just a steady job to his employees; Jordan wanted to offer them a better future.
“I wanted them to see that they could someday own their own businesses,” he said.
That meant conducting trainings for employees during off hours, all in his crammed food trailer.
The trailer had more than just size limitations; it was merely a seasonal business, given the weather in Pittsburgh. Mindful of this and his desire to help more people, Jordan brainstormed how to expand his business.
“Initially, we focused on helping people who had come out of jail or prison and were struggling with reentry,” Jordan explained. “But then we thought, why stop there? Why not hire other disadvantaged people, such as veterans, immigrants, people on political asylum, and homeless people?”
He began to look at expanding his business from just the food trailer to a brick and mortar location.
He had a unique requirement for the brick and mortar spot: It had to be in a low-income community.
“I wanted to hire more people and do more,” Jordan said.
“We want our employees to know that we believe in them and want them to be successful. They can have the future they want.”
Jordan Robarge, CEO of Revival Chili
It wasn’t long before he found his next venture: Nancy's, a family-owned diner, was for sale nearby. It served affordable, home-cooked meals for the community.
So he purchased the diner. The new name? Nancy’s Revival.
No longer would Jordan be holding trainings in Revival Chili’s trailer. Now he had ample room to offer workshops for all of his employees.
But first, he’d need more funding to make that happen.
In acknowledgement of his commitment to serving those in his community, Jordan got the funding his business needed. Revival Chili was awarded $20,000 in the 2019 Citizens Bank Small Business Community Champion Award Contest as the first-prize winner in Pittsburgh.
“We were so thrilled,” Jordan said. “It gave us the money we needed to take our training to the next level.”
The process of providing education to his employees, however, involved some education on Jordan’s end. He started by teaching the entrepreneurial classes himself. Soon, he realized that people faced with reentry into society have barriers they need to overcome — most notably, trust.
“They couldn’t understand why we would want to help them,” Jordan explained.
That recognition made him reevaluate and enhance his training programs to offer three parts. In October 2019, he rolled out his new program with 12 sessions that featured eight different experts he brought in from the outside. The $20,000 allowed Jordan to bring in those experts and purchase a presentation screen for the sessions.
“We want our employees to know that we believe in them and want them to be successful,” Jordan emphasized. “They can have the future they want.”
One of Jordan’s most important goals is to provide access to the resources his employees need when they’re ready to start their own businesses. To assist with that, he’ll continue to offer support, including marketing and funding, in exchange for a portion of the equity in their companies.
“Companies can build off the brand equity of our name,” Jordan explained. “If someone wanted to open a cleaning business, they would call it Revival Cleaning.”
From chili prepared in his childhood home to his food trailer and Nancy’s Revival diner, Jordan Robarge has certainly come a long way since his college days at UVA.
“I never would have imagined I would end up here,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
And though Jordan may not have the career he dreamed of in college, no one can argue that he’s engineered a very bright future for himself — and for so many others who never got that first chance.
“I couldn't have done any of this without the support I received,” he said.
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