Renaldo Norris has come a long way from grilling hamburgers, wings and ribs in a shopping center parking lot five years ago.
He’s come even further if you go back to 2007, when he began serving a two-year and eight-month sentence at Piedmont Correctional Institution for drug trafficking offenses.
“I was writing down stuff in the back of my Bible and getting my stuff together for when I got out because I’ve always been able to walk on my own beat,” Norris told The Charlotte Observer recently. “You have a lot of negative people in there. I’ve seen people leave and come back before I could even get out.”
Norris, 42, owns Renaldo’s Culinary Experience at 1540 West Blvd. The chef founded Renaldo’s during the summer of 2017, establishing the restaurant first in the Eastridge Mall food court after gaining a following with his temporary parking lot set up.
“I would go set up a tent, grill, warmer and even outside burners so I could saute and get some flames,” Norris said.
Ample opportunity on Charlotte’s food scene opens doors for entrepreneurs who have culinary skills, but there’s sometimes one big thing holding them back: A felony conviction on their record.
Norris considers himself fortunate he was hired to work under chefs in restaurants in Charlotte despite having been in prison. Still, it took Norris 12 years to make those plans he wrote down in prison a reality. He got out in 2010.
“I’m just grateful for every moment I’ve had, including the good, the bad and the ugly,” Norris said. “It’s all been one blessing. Especially from the things I’ve overcome, and to be in a position to be talking business.”
Norris has already overcome significant odds. Starting your own business is a workaround to hiring discrimination but comes with its own barriers. More than half of formerly incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are currently jobless, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Among small business owners, only 1.5% have a felony record, according to findings by the RAND Corporation.
Starting small businesses
The future of owning a business is why Shaheedah Martin is looking forward to her Sept. 12 prison release date.
Martin, 43, hopes to join the food business once she’s released. After a planned vacation in Saint Thomas with her husband, Good Portions Italian ice cart will be her No. 1 priority.
She bought the ice cart from Maglione’s Italian Ices, a family-owned business in New Jersey.
“The ‘Good Portions’ name is important to me because during my incarceration, a lot of times I felt like I didn’t deserve anything good,” Martin said. “In my mind I was just always going to be in a situation where I was trying to make up for what had been done.”
Martin was 26 years old when she was convicted of obtaining property by false pretenses and writing bad personal checks on a closed account. The property obtained — groceries and children’s clothes — was under $500, she said.
Martin said she gave birth as a teen and has had mental health struggles, many of which stemmed from her own father being incarcerated. All of it set her down the wrong path, she said.
By Martin’s early 20s, she already had two felonies for stealing and fraudulently using credit cards.
She got 16 years and eight months for her most recent offense because by that time she was considered a habitual felon. Throughout Martin’s life, she’s struggled with manic depression, and this only worsened while in prison.
“It was very low sometimes,” Martin said about her time in prison.
Martin, a mother of three, says her children kept her going while in prison. So did her faith.
The importance of seeing her children again led her to the Center for Community Transitions’ women’s center in 2020. CCT allows incarcerated women to come and practice their reentry in real time, according to Executive Director Patrice Funderburg.
Almost 90% of the women who come to CCT are mothers, Funderburg said. Nationally, she said, more than 80% of women who are currently incarcerated are not only moms, but they are moms of children who are under 18.
Seeing ‘the vision’
Norris’ success in the restaurant business isn’t something he could have dreamed of before prison.
“I didn’t think I was going to be a chef,” Norris said.
He’d graduated from Livingstone College with a degree in elementary education and taught high school in Gastonia before his arrest in 2007.
At a traffic stop, police found drugs in his car, which Norris says belonged to his friend who was in the passenger seat. But he was afraid to say that to the officer because growing up he was “trained not to talk.” He was 23 years old at the time.
“I didn’t realize that I wasn’t in the streets, so I should’ve been able to talk,” he said. “But as a young man, you want to be liked by everyone.”
Norris’ children two children — including one now in college — helped him stay focused while in prison, and now that he’s free, they’re the reason he continues to work hard to strive professionally and personally.
“My kids and my babies’ mothers, they help,” he said. “When I think about losing it all, it’s losing them. And it ain’t worth it.”
After prison, he began attending culinary school at the Art Institute of Charlotte. He took what he learned in school and began working for chef Rocco Whalen at Fahrenheit Charlotte and chef Rob Masone at Kre8 Xperiences.
“They inspired me to get in here and cook,” Norris said.
Although Renaldo’s is in a building, there is not a dining area for customers, and that’s something Norris said will change.
“I’m trying to create a vibe from the To-Go box,” he said. “It’s coming, I just got to wait for the universe to let it be and lay it down for me.”
Norris’ main challenge for expanding is finances. He wants people to invest in the food, and him.
“Somebody is going to see the vision and we’re going to go all the way,” he said.
This story was originally published April 17, 2022 6:00 AM.