Rojo Mexican Grill offers recovering addicts a second chance

SAINT LOUIS PARK, Minn. - A story of a second chance can be found inside Rojo Mexican Grill, at St. Louis Park's West End, where several employees are living their happiest hour.

The restaurant has hired nearly a dozen people currently in recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction.

The majority are now approaching two years of sobriety.

The transformation began with the unlikely mix of Minnesota, Mexico and New Jersey, when a New Jersey kid named Mickey walked in the door two years ago, searching for a job.

"He was more nervous than I have ever seen an applicant, but something about him struck me. I could see an honesty in his eyes, and he just told me a little about his story, he was here from out of town and I didn't know anything other than that here from New Jersey," said Adam Lehr, Rojo Mexican Grill's General Manager.

Lehr watched quickly Mickey, 23, become one of the best employees he'd ever seen.

"He was always the one that wanted to volunteer to do the jobs no one else wanted to do," said Lehr.

All the while, Mickey slowly shared his secret, revealing he was a recovering drug and alcohol addict, resisting everyday temptations of working around alcohol in the restaurant.

"When I did tell people everybody was accepting, cared about me, asked questions. Wanted to know my story," he said. "The obsession is pretty much gone."

Mickey came to Minnesota to by way of the Crossroads Residential Aftercare program in St. Louis Park. It is a destination for people who've completed treatment but still need guidance taking those first sober steps, like re-entering the workforce.

An estimated 55 residents call Crossroads home, and can live there up to two years, although the average stay is about seven months.

Lehr told Mickey if he had any fellow Crossroad friends as reliable as him, he would consider hiring them, and several more employees followed, including Tommy, Rob, Mikey and Luke.

The men did not want to share their last names.

They lived together and shared in their recovery at Rojo.

Collectively, the group struggled with a range of alcohol and drugs, from opiates to heroin to cocaine.

"I had a terrible problem, my family knew it, everybody in the town knew it," said Mickey.

Luke, 20, a Rojo food runner, says he doesn't remember if he was driving during a car accident. He sustained a traumatic brain injury that left him in a coma.

Tommy, 25, a Rojo bartender, says his rock bottom came in the Bronx.

"I literally broke out crying in this room with a bunch of other addicts and drug dealers in the room and I was like, I gotta get out of here, this isn't the life I'm supposed to be living," Tommy said.

Now, he says the temptation he faces a bartender is long gone. "I know the consequences that could come down the road if I decide to drink again or use, so it's just not worth it to me anymore. I can actually come to work with a clear head, show up on time, be accountable for what I do," said Tommy.

Rob, 36, a former food runner at Rojo, owned and lost a successful company. He says he went from a six figure salary to working minimum wage at Rojo, but believes the entrance back to the workplace gave him the confidence to start his medical device finance company back up again.

"It literally helped me become comfortable with myself again. When I talk to the other guys everyone has had that experience," said Rob. "I am right back at it, it's the end of the quarter, I'm super busy, phone doesn't stop and it's just like it was two and a half years ago."

Crossroads founder Sharron Johnson believes in a state known for recovery, many respond to Minnesota Nice, especially the "Jersey Boys."

"This Scandinavian place we live. It's like there is always a place at the table," said Johnson. "People in recovery really want to prove. I'm solid, I'm a good worker and you can count on me. I'll show up."

Lehr says the opportunity is offered to those willing to change. "My father had alcoholism my entire life, as long as I was child. He died about eight years ago because he never could get it. Could never get his demons in check. And so I know how hard it is," said Lehr.

Lehr wanted to give the guys the second chance his father never had. He says the owners of Rojo support hiring them, because people at the top level of the company have had their own struggles with addiction.

"If somebody is going to relapse on any given day, they are not going to be here, so if anything I have been harder on those guys than usual employees. That being said, they have been my best employees on any level," said Lehr.

"We have been that vehicle for them, at least to start getting their life back in order of getting the first building blocks of an income, a job and some paychecks."

"When people realize you are doing the right thing, it's like a semi-high I guess," said Mikey, 25. "If I could do it, anyone else can, I was very hopeless. I thought this could never happen to me."

For the "Jersey Boys" inside a Mexican Restaurant in Minnesota, it doesn't matter where you're from, only where you are going.

"It's whole new chapter in my life but it began two years ago and it continues to get better from where I am at today, to where I am going," said Mickey. After being through rehab multiple times, the majority of the Rojo Crossroads employees are approaching two years of sobriety.


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