After Spending More Than 20 Years in Prison, Ex-convict Turned Franchise Owner Is Paying It Forward

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Sajad Shakoor may be living the American Dream, but for a lot of years, he was living a nightmare. Sentenced to life in prison at just 23 years old, his future was bleak.

But then he got a second chance. And now? He’s using his second chance and giving it to others.

Sajad Shakoor’s Road to the American Dream Was Paved With Cell Blocks

Sajad was a senior in high school when he first saw the inside of a prison cell’s walls. He spent the next four years in and out of jail until two robbery felonies and one fistfight later, he was sentenced to life.

A victim of California’s since-amended “3 Strikes Law,” it didn’t matter that his third conviction should have been a misdemeanor. According to the law at the time, it was three strikes and you’re out! (Or rather, in — for life).

“I was in prison most of my life, over 20 years,” Sajad told CBS News. “I went in when I was in high school. I went in for a third strike. My third strike was instigating a fist fight and this was a law where if you had two previous felonies, your third one no matter what it was, it would give you a life sentence.”

Despite the odds being stacked against him, Sajad refused to just give up. During his 21 years in San Quentin State Prison, he worked with California Senator Dave Cortese to change the 3 Strikes Law — so that a life sentence is only imposed if all three felonies are “serious” or “violent.” He also completed his GED, earned his BA, started his Ph.D., and discovered a new passion for cooking.  

“I always loved to cook, but I became more proficient in San Quentin. I worked in the chow hall, and I learned I had a passion for cooking and education,” he said.

And in 2013, two decades after he walked through the prison gates, he finally walked out a free man, thanks to significant changes he helped bring about to the law that initially put him there.

After More Than 20 Years in Prison, Sajad Shakoor Seizes His Second Chance and Doesn’t Let Go

Once out of prison, Sajad decided to continue working on his Ph.D. in education. He also found a job as a cook at a restaurant called Falafel Corner in Fremont, California. His cooking was so good that three years later, his manager asked him to partner with him on a new location.

It was just the beginning. Sajad eventually bought out his old manager and in just five short years, he expanded the Falafel Corner into a successful franchise with 40 locations across California.

Sajad credits his Mexican and Pakistani roots for his success, along with a few tricks he picked up in prison.

“One of the specialties and what I was known for and the reason why I have it on my menu here was the quesadilla,” Sajad told CBS News. “We couldn’t get cheese in prison so I used to have to make my own cheese. We’d bring back milk from the kitchen and get kitchen hats and hair nets and strain the cheese through there and let it dry.”

Whatever it is, it’s definitely working.

Falafel Corner is one of the world’s largest restaurant brands (at least, according to its website). And the ex-convict turned business owner even received the Certificate of Congressional Recognition honoring small businesses.

Paying It Forward

Not only has the now-50-something Sajad achieved the American Dream, but he’s using his story to change the lives of others just like him.

He purposefully looks for people who are looking for a second chance to own each shop.

“My franchise attorney… he said ‘Man, you are the most unfranchise-like franchise I’ve ever seen in my life,” Sajad said. “The fact is, I’m pulling from the bottom — those guys need a hand. And at the end of the day, they’re going to be more appreciative (of) this opportunity.”

He also has some good advice for people who may be feeling like their pasts define their futures.

“You know, regardless of your past, just focus on your future,” he continued. “Have good intentions for people and things will turn around for you. That’s the story of my life. I turned my life around, I’ve come back and now I’m giving back. You do that, and all these doors will open up for you.”

For this inspiring ex-convict, that’s 40 doors…and counting.

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