Dec 15, 2011 0 Share

Serving Up Success


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When Steamers Coffeehouse opened in March 2007 in a small suburb of Denver, Colorado, co-owner Athan Miller was unsure how the small shop would fare. Would Steamers be accepted by the community? Would it stand the test of time in this changing economic climate? Would the Coffeehouse face too much competition from other coffee shops? Most of all, would it be able to live out its mission of being a sustainable business employing adults with autism and other developmental disabilities? 

Why Start Steamers? 

Miller, a former case manager for individuals with developmental disabilities, started Steamers Coffeehouse because, though she loved working with individuals with disabilities, she was feeling restless in her role. As she puts it, “I am not the kind of person to sit at a desk! My husband saw a coffee shop for sale, and he said, 'Let's buy it. Let's try it [as a place of employment for people with disabilities] and see what happens'. I'd always wanted to do something like that.” And with this beginning, Steamers Coffeehouse was born. When Steamers first opened its doors, it employed three individuals with developmental disabilities, and no one knew how long the little shop would stay in operation. 

Fast-forward to the present, and Steamers is still going strong with 43 employees who have developmental disabilities, 40 employees without developmental disabilities, and several managers. It has moved three times to accommodate its growth, and has expanded to include an additional full-service restaurant, Jack's Bar and Grill. In addition, the online store offers customers across the world the opportunity to place orders of homemade jam, bags, and gift baskets. 

Facing Challenges 

When Steamers first began, Miller remembers facing a myriad of challenges. First, though Miller had a great deal of experience working with individuals with disabilities—she’d worked in disability services in various capacities since age 15—she freely acknowledges that she had no idea how to do basic business-related tasks, such as marketing, or writing up a menu. However, she and her business partner, Scott Parker, moved forward despite their lack of experience because, as she says, “Failure was not an option. [The coffeehouse was] how we paid our mortgage. Plus, we had all these people with developmental disabilities who were relying on us! If we failed, they had to stay home or go to a sheltered workshop.” 

Former Steamers employee Allison McGinley's story parallels Miller's in several ways. First, McGinley's husband suggested that she visit Steamers and apply for work when the couple moved to the Denver area in 2010, given McGinley's passion for working with individuals with disabilities. Much like Miller, McGinley had worked as a direct-care professional, but she had no past work experience in the restaurant world. Despite this challenge, the experience of working at Steamers was a supportive one for her. In McGinley's words, “When I first started working, I didn't know anything about coffee. They were very patient...and it's such a fast-paced workplace. I kept screwing up [when operating] a machine; I just could not remember how to do the steamer. I was kind of embarrassed, but I asked, 'Could I put a piece of paper showing me which way [to turn the lever]'? They said, 'That's an awesome idea for everyone.' They celebrated my idea and accepted me where I was, and they do the same for individuals with disabilities.” 

Job Supports for Adults on the Autism Spectrum 

Working at Steamers has been a catalyst for growth for adults on the autism spectrum in Colorado, but the process has not always been an easy one. The restaurant environment itself can be hectic and overwhelming. Miller notes that the kitchen environment can be particularly challenging for individuals with autism, as it can be very loud and has the potential to foster sensory overload. Miller recalls one young woman with autism who, “...did a lot of banging her head on the wall when she first came to us. If customers were too loud, she'd crouch down under a table and start rocking.” 

However, the young woman has stayed on with Steamers, and her self-injurious behaviors have reduced dramatically during her employment with the coffeehouse. Miller attributes this change to the fact that Steamers staff has been flexible, giving her the space she needs to engage in self-soothing behaviors. Yet at the same time, Miller has communicated the boundaries of the workplace; the individual knows that engaging in self-injurious behavior will cost her job. In this way, the specific, constant rules of the workplace have been essential to her success. Miller says, “She knows that she's not allowed to hit her head, or [purposefully] place a knife against her hand. Since she's allowed to do other things that make her feel better and are safe [such as rocking] … she doesn't do the things that are not safe.” 

Additionally, the day-to-day workplace interactions at Steamers allow for growth in employees with autism, who often struggle to interact with strangers. Greetings and small talk are taken for granted in many workplaces; at Steamers, they are celebrated as signs of growth and positive change. McGinley recalls, “One guy, a dishwasher extraordinaire with autism …  struggled with social norms. Our first conversation was very awkward, but from then on he was able to be much more candid with me. If nothing else, [working at Steamers] was helping him to be around people. I could see a difference in our relationship.” 

Nevertheless, the need to serve customers and simultaneously support adults with disabilities can pose difficulties. Miller emphasizes that Steamers is first and foremost a business, but she also acknowledges that there are times when the needs of employees with disabilities have to be prioritized. As Miller says, “Mostly, we tell people: Nothing interrupts the customer. But then if there's somebody who really can't handle what's happening at the moment—if someone is banging their head or hiding under a table—you have to stop and ask [the customer], 'Can you wait?' Finding that balance has been a really big challenge.” 

Though Steamers does not currently employ any individuals who have formal Behavioral Support Plans, the business does have informal supports in place to help employees with disabilities to succeed on the job. For example, the Steamers work schedule for individuals with disabilities is structured so that, in many cases, individuals with disabilities are working part-time rather than full-time. In this way, Steamers can support individuals who might not have the focus, energy, or attention required for a full-time job. This type of staggered scheduling also allows more individuals to work at the coffeehouse and restaurant. Even so, Miller acknowledges that Steamers Coffeehouse and adjacent Jack's Restaurant are not the right workplace environment for everyone. In some cases, the high level of stimulation is prohibitive. As Miller remembers, “In one instance, a guy [we employed] couldn't handle being touched, and he doesn't work here anymore. We couldn't prevent it from happening; people are brushing past one another all the time. He would explode and scare people.” 

A Model of Business and Community Inclusion 

Steamers is uniquely positioned to serve a particular residential area in suburban Denver. Though it does partner with other businesses in the area and offer online ordering, its primary client base is the walkable subdivision which surrounds the coffeehouse and restaurant. Miller notes, “That built in customer base has really helped us.” However, she also notes that their distance from the downtown area can be a double-edged sword, explaining, “Because we get the same customers, they'll stop coming if we're not good enough!” McGinley echoes that statement. “It's the only coffee shop in the subdivision—so it's not just a workshop, it provides people with coffee and food,” she says. “There were people who would come in and be impatient … But I knew that [doing some tasks myself] would be taking away something that's so important and empowering to others.” This mindset of support and partnership has helped Steamers to employ many people with disabilities, and it has kept many customers coming back for more. 

Though the interaction between people with and without disabilities is a primary goal for Steamers, it can be uncomfortable at times. As Miller says, “The public doesn't really understand the behaviors [people sometimes exhibit]. One guy paces. Then customers see this guy—he looks different—and they kind of wonder, 'What's going on here?'” The initial visit to Steamers can be awkward for newcomers, but Miller reports that many people come back, because they want to support the work that Steamers and Jack's are doing, and because both restaurants strive for excellence in their service. In her words, “First impressions are important; I want to be careful to not turn people off … because if they come back, they can see how great people with disabilities are.” 

Like some art-based day support programs, Steamers is both a business and a vocational program. Steamers is a for-profit enterprise, but it is also a Medicaid Waiver provider of services, and the funding it receives from the state of Colorado allows the business to pay its employees minimum wage. As such, operational costs and profits must be generated by the restaurant and coffee shop itself. Initially, Steamers did consider becoming a non-profit, but, as Miller says, “I feel strongly that you can be a for-profit agency and employ people with disabilities, too. I think it's really possible to run a business and do good. I want people to walk in here and say, 'This is a really cool restaurant … and it also employs people with disabilities'. I want the product to be first, to sell itself.” 

Areas of Growth 

Today, Miller suspects that perhaps her very lack of initial business experience may well have helped Steamers to become what it has. As she says, “We have to build inefficiencies into our business model. The trick is finding places where it's efficient and inefficient, and balance the two.” Likewise, McGinley posits, “I think it's about finding that balance between being a top-notch coffee place, and a place that’s ultimate purpose is to empower people with disabilities. It's about finding creative ways to do both.” 

When asked if Steamers is replicable in other communities, Miller says that, even though the values it stands for can certainly be embodied elsewhere, the exact nature of the restaurant is unique, and will not be franchised, despite offers to do so. She says with conviction, “You can't write a manual [for a business like this], because you're working with people with developmental disabilities and not one of them is alike.” 

With this belief at the forefront of their thinking, Steamers Coffeehouse and Jack's Restaurant represent a significant step when it comes to supported employment for adults with developmental disabilities. The bustling, community-based environment is a far cry from the typically segregated sheltered workshop model. And thanks to its location, its dedicated staff and supporters, and its attitude of support and acceptance, Steamers continues to grow. In Miller's words, “We had to change and evolve and be flexible to succeed.” In this way, Steamers serves as a model for what is possible for inclusive businesses across the nation. 

As such, the experience of working in the Steamers Coffeehouse is a powerful one for its neurotypical employees as well. McGinley recalls her experience with one young man with autism, noting, “I had this idea in my head of what autism was like, and he didn't fit it! He's really different than I expected.” Working at Steamers allowed McGinley to let go of preconceived ideas of autism and make new connections. 

For her part, Miller also realizes how powerful it can be to have adults with disabilities working alongside people who lack preconceived expectations of what they can and cannot do. She recalls, “We have a guy who works here with developmental disabilities, and [the cooks] got him hand-cutting french fries. I was around the doorway while this was happening; they couldn't see me. And I'm thinking, 'He has degenerative muscular problems, he can't do this!' And now, he cuts our french fries every day! [The cooks] aren't social workers, they don't know his diagnosis, they didn't have expectations. When you don't have those expectations...” she trails off, a smile in her voice. 

What Miller and her staff have learned is that when you don't have expectations of failure, adults with autism and other disabilities can—and do—surprise you. And perhaps what Steamers has most contributed to the field of inclusive employment is that it has grown into a place in which those surprises abound.