A Middlesbrough restaurant’s new trainee manager is combining serving food with serving time – as he is a prisoner at HMP Kirklevington Grange.

Joe – whose full name is not being made public – has won promotion at charity-run restaurant, The Fork in the Road, after wowing boss Andy Preston during spells as a kitchen porter, waiter and supervisor.

The 31-year-old, who is not due for release from Kirklevington Grange until August next year, works six days a week at the restaurant under the supervision of manager Matty Hynes and assistant manager Rachael Whitehead.

Backed by Middlesbrough-based national charity CEO Sleepout, The Fork in the Road is focused on giving work and training opportunities to the long-term unemployed including ex-offenders.

The restaurant’s founder Andy said: “We’re delighted to have made Joe our trainee manager.

“He is a really strong member of staff who came in as a dishwasher, then started to do some waiting and did such a good job that it just made sense to have him out front getting involved with our customers.

“He’s responsible and reliable, has bags of common sense, takes advice on board, and he’s always keen to do the right thing for the customers and the restaurant.

“Ultimately, he’s just keen to grasp the second chance we’ve given him.

“If he continues to work hard and display the attitude he’s done for the last six months then the world is his oyster when he completes his custodial sentence.”

Revealing the level of trust the restaurant has in their new trainee manager, Andy added: “Joe has supervised the restaurant on his own and has always done a great job.

“In fact, he occasionally locks up at night, takes the restaurant keys back to prison with him and returns to open up the next morning. We trust him.”

Joe said: “I am really chuffed to have been made trainee manager. The Fork in the Road is an amazing project that’s given me a fantastic opportunity.

“People sometimes ask me why I’m so happy to be at work. Well, when the alternative is to be locked up all day, it’s something to be happy about.

“My life is my work so I work hard and put everything I can into it. My motto is ‘Every day is a school day’.”

Joe hopes his role at The Fork in the Road can help him find employment on his release in eight months’ time.

“I channelled my energies into the wrong things in the past, got involved in something I shouldn’t have and ended up in jail,” he reflected. “Now I’m determined to turn a corner and do something productive with my life.

“I’m just grateful for the support I’ve received from Andy, the staff at Kirklevington Grange and everyone I’ve talked to while working at The Fork in the Road.

“The staff and customers at the restaurant have been good to me, there’s a great atmosphere and the food speaks for itself.

“I can definitely see myself working somewhere like this when I’ve finished my sentence, so hopefully this is a big step along the way.”

Andy added: “Joe’s story is the whole vision of The Fork in the Road in action. Creating opportunities and changing the lives of those who deserve a second chance is a perfect example of what our project exists to achieve.

“That’s not to say we’re soft on crime. To be brutally honest, I don’t believe everyone deserves another chance – but I believe there are many people who, given the right chance and support, can be real assets to their communities.

“Of course, for every Joe we’re going to have others who are much less successful. We’ve actually worked closely with Kirklevington Grange to give opportunities to seven or eight offenders over the past 12 months but Joe has been the stand-out success.”

Angie Petit, governor at HMP Kirklevington Grange, added: “The partnership working between Kirklevington Grange and The Fork in the Road is an amazing example of how we can work together to give people real chances for change and hope for the future.

“Employment for our men is an important part of that, but when we see aspirations realised in this way it really brings home the true meaning of our purpose.”