WHEN OMAR CREDLE STARTS HIRING at his new Italian ice store on Blue Hill Avenue, he knows exactly the type of workers he’ll be looking for: the kind no one else wants. Specifically, teenagers and young adults with criminal records.
Credle knows how difficult it can be to find a job with a record and a spotty employment history. The fortysomething Dorchester native spent years in a haze of drugs and alcohol and homelessness, shoplifting and reselling goods to get by. After numerous incarcerations, every job he applied for — at the MBTA, moving companies, clothing stores, restaurants, hotel laundry rooms — meant background checks or questions about his criminal past. No employer would touch him.
Credle eventually got help and got clean and decided that being his own boss was the only solution. Using money he had saved cutting hair and working in the stockroom at the Long Island shelter, he bought an old delivery truck and spent years fixing it up. In 2015, Credle, who used to go by “Smokey,” launched Smokey Slushes out of the vehicle. His success prompted him to open a brick-and-mortar store in August.
People who have been in trouble with the law sometimes have better luck striking out on their own than trying to work for someone else, says Jen Faigel, executive director of CommonWealth Kitchen, the Dorchester incubator that helped Credle get his slushie truck going. Despite the fact that federal law prohibits most employers from discriminating against job applicants with a criminal history, about two-thirds of organizations conduct background checks on all candidates, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. If an arrest or conviction pops up, many employers won’t consider the applicant.
When Credle opened his slushie business, he attracted a steady stream of customers, along with teens looking for work. He wondered if, like him, any of them had a criminal history preventing them from finding a job, and he decided to dedicate his business to giving troubled young people a fresh start. Even a few months of working at Smokey’s could instill job skills and help persuade future employers to hire them, Credle says.
Credle knows the value of a helping hand. For $100 a month, CommonWealth Kitchen gives him a place to park and plug in his truck. Freezer space is extra. The nonprofit also directed him to spots around the city where he could sell his icy treats, helped him get a permit for the new store, and helped finance his store’s sign.
Budding bakers, caterers, and salsa makers can use CommonWealth Kitchen’s staff to get their business off the ground, and also have access to recipe development, legal and human resources help, and other assistance. All this support and collaboration helps people not only become entrepreneurs but also become better employers, says Faigel. Since it began in 2009, the incubator has had a hand in launching nearly 200 businesses, including Clover Food Lab and Roxy’s Grilled Cheese.
“By working in our shared facility, they’re learning from each other,” she says. “I’d like to think that they’re building some pretty strong skills.”
Credle’s new store is a few blocks from the Franklin Park Zoo, not far from where he grew up — an area, he notes, that is sorely in need of positive influences. The space is tiny, with only a few stools and a single table, but there’s plenty of Richie’s Italian ice, 29 flavors in all, as well as hot dogs and fried dough. The smallest slush size, a “bootleg” scoop, sells for $1 — an adjustment Credle made when he realized some of his customers didn’t have $2.50 for what used to be the least expensive serving.
Credle is outspoken about his determination to help kids stay out of trouble, and outside his store a banner reads: “Smokey Slushes representing Beantown/With guns down.”
He doesn’t plan to start hiring until he can open a second store, but by employing young people who might otherwise feel trapped by a youthful mistake and return to the streets if they can’t find a job, Credle hopes to help create a path to a law-abiding lifestyle. He also aims to serve as a mentor of sorts.
“I want people to know that if you’re addicted to drugs or you’re homeless, you can make it out of there,” he says. “You can change.”