The Fork in the Road eatery is celebrating its first 12 months in operation, during which the charity-funded Teesside restaurant employed 15 local people plus 12 prisoners, provided works experience to 30 long-term unemployed and put 30 more through a training course.

Unique in the North East, the Middlesbrough eatery opened on Christmas Eve last year, funded by Teesside-based parent charity CEO Sleepout with additional financial support from Public Health England.

It is run by experienced catering professionals who mentor trainees looking for a second chance in life, including ex-offenders, those in recovery from addiction and the long-term unemployed.

Based on the town’s Linthorpe Road in previously empty premises once famed as the home of popular toy shop Romer Parrish, The Fork in the Road has given employment of varying lengths to 12 men from local prison, HMP Kirklevington Grange.

One, a prisoner called Joe, works six days a week at the restaurant and has impressed enough to be appointed trainee manager whilst still serving the final year of his sentence.

The restaurant also launched The Fork in the Road Academy in conjunction with Stockton Riverside College, with 30 long-term unemployed local people taking a course covering food hygiene, first aid and other skills designed to help them find work.

Many of the students have enjoyed works experience at The Fork in the Road, including Jemma Hill. Having been long-term unemployed, Jemma was referred to the Fork’s training academy by her local Job Centre and has now been employed as a waitress at the restaurant for six months.

The restaurant currently employs 15 local people, 40% of whom were previously jobless, and it’s planned to increase this figure to 60% during the first few months of 2018.

CEO Sleepout chairman Andy Preston, who also managed the restaurant before handing over the reins to Matty Hynes, said: “We can definitely call The Fork in the Road’s first year a success.

“It’s been stressful and hard work but very satisfying too. We’re incredibly grateful for all the support we’ve received from the public, who have welcomed what is a unique concept that goes way beyond any other restaurant.

“The food started great and continues to improve, the place looks great and we’ve even extended it, with the recent launch of the 30-seat Marquee Room for private hire, which means we can now seat up to 100 diners.

“We’ve even made a tiny profit, which isn’t to be sneezed at for the first year of any restaurant.”

CEO Sleepout organises fundraising events across the country that have seen more than 1,500 business leaders sleep rough at venues such as Middlesbrough FC’s Riverside Stadium, Eaglescliffe’s Preston Park Museum, Wembley Stadium, The Oval, Emirates Old Trafford and St James’ Park.

Much of the funds have gone towards supporting the work of The Fork in the Road, which Andy says can now look forward to 2018 with confidence.

“I’m incredibly proud of all that we’ve achieved in our first 12 months in operation,” said the Middlesbrough-born businessman and charity leader.

“We’ve helped so many people who otherwise faced a real uphill struggle to get training and work opportunities.

“Naturally, making Joe our trainee manager while he’s still serving a sentence is a stand-out success, while another man, Dave, took time out on his first day of freedom for several years to thank us for helping to rebuild his life.

“Along with Stockton Riverside College, we’ve formed a unique partnership with HMP Kirklevington Grange, and we’re even now working with them to take produce from the prison gardens, so they should become a major supplier next year.

“Our waitress Jemma is also another fantastic example of how The Fork in the Road can help to transform people’s lives, as she has shone when given an opportunity through our academy.

“I’m really excited about the year ahead, so would ask people to please continue supporting our project and everything we’re trying to achieve. We really are a place of great food, ambiance and opportunity.”