From Behind Bars to Behind the Counter

His sentence commuted by then-President Obama, Candido Ortiz fulfills a dream by opening a café in Jersey City.

Photo courtesy of Stefanie Campolo, NJRC

Usually it’s a bad sign when people break down in tears on a restaurant’s opening day. Not so at El Sabor Del Café, a new American, Spanish and international food outpost in Jersey City.

Within an hour of opening the doors to his tiny new place the morning of December 19, Candido Ortiz had made his co-workers weepy: The kitchen staff, made up of three longtime friends from Union City, where he lives, cried because they were witnessing Ortiz’s dream come true. In 1991, Ortiz was one of 21 defendants convicted of drug and weapons charges in federal court. He received a 49-year sentence, later reduced to 44 years. His expected release date was 2036.

But in August of 2016, Barack Obama, winding down his presidency, commuted the sentences of 213 inmates whose sentences had been deemed disproportionately harsh. Ortiz was one of them.

During his years in prison, most recently at Fort Dix Correction Institution, Ortiz, now 57, took cooking classes, became a cook and eventually a head cook, managing a culinary team of 20 and preparing meals for as many as 2,500 inmates each day. He began to dream of one day opening his own eatery.

Sitting at the spotless counter of El Sabor was former Governor Jim McGreevey, who wept because he was seeing in action what he called “the justice and decency our country was founded on.”

The same month Ortiz was released from Fort Dix, he enrolled in the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a program founded and run by McGreevey that helps paroled offenders with addiction treatment, structured sober housing and job training.

Ortiz, whose specialties include pollo guisado (chicken stew) and costillita de cerdo (pork ribs), said he believes his dedication to learning and cooking helped him earn release from prison 18 years early.

“I don’t feel angry about the time I did,” he said. “At first, I felt my life was over. But it changed my life. It put me on this path.”

McGreevey brought with him a personal letter of congratulations to Ortiz written by Obama. Jersey City’s City Council president Rolando Lavarro, local pastor Joshua Rodriguez and state senator Sandra Cunningham all came to congratulate the new restaurateur.

Ortiz overcome, was grateful, but also focused on the job at hand.

“Do you deliver?” asked someone who popped in to check out the menu.

“Yes!” Ortiz exclaimed. “Absolutely!”

El Sabor Del Café, 31 Martin Luther King Drive, Jersey City, 201-946-6722

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