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Prison Meal Deal: Where The Staff Serves Lunch ... And Time

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The Fife and Drum Restaurant offers a daily lunch bargain that sounds hard to pass up: For just $3.21, you get a hot, tasty meal, made mostly from scratch and delivered to your table by friendly waiters.

So what's the catch? You have to go through security before you're served.

The restaurant is inside the Northeast Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison on the outskirts of historic Concord, Mass. The place has a school-cafeteria feel, with linoleum floors and card tables under bright blue, plastic tablecloths. And the chefs and wait staff? They're inmates.

Bob Hertz started going there for lunch a few times a week some 20 years ago — back when it cost $1.42. "It's been a fantastic price, and the food's good," Hertz says.

Not surprisingly, "some people are a little nervous about the environment," he notes. "We had a group of women come from an insurance company, and as they walked in, there was a frisk going on. And we ... never saw them again."

The restaurant provides culinary training for the inmates, who rotate jobs every five weeks. On the day of my visit, the head chef was Calvin Hodge, who is halfway through a six-year sentence. He and his fellow students are in the kitchen at 7 a.m., prepping the day's meal: roast turkey with all the fixings — mashed potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, green beans and cranberry sauce.

"It gives you that experience of working in a real restaurant," Hodge says. "So when I do go home, I can say I got X amount of time of real experience — hands-on everything, feeding to the public, and I can cook pretty good. So, I should be able to get a position somewhere."

Prison officials say the goal is to help inmates gain real skills they can use to find work when they're released, because that reduces the risk that they'll re-offend.

The culinary program spends about $500 a week on food, offset by what customers pay. And there are a lot of regulars, including Mark Higgins.

"It's definitely different, being here for lunch, but I enjoy it very much," Higgins says. "Of course, we don't want to say how really good it is because the secret will be out."

Instructor Kim Luketich taught at a regular culinary school before coming to the Fife and Drum. Running a cooking program in prison, she says, poses unique challenges — for one thing, the knives are tethered to the tables or locked in cabinets. And her students have to learn a lot of skills on the job beyond chopping and plating.

"They get to kind of get acclimated to talking to people again, associating with people again," she says. "You know, it takes some getting used to for anybody — customer service. But, yeah, these guys are really doing a nice job."

Mark Molina is a first-time offender serving a three-year sentence. This month, he's waiting tables and baking desserts. "This baking stuff is like a chemistry," he says. "You've got to get everything just right. You screw up one thing, it comes out like a brick, rather than a cake."

Molina says the hours go by quickly, and he's grateful for that. His favorite part of the day is when he and his classmates get to sit down and taste what they've made.

As for Molina's baking skills, his chocolate cream pie gets an A-plus.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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