Harvest Café is actively working to improve social inequalities in the workforce. The ultimate goal is to offer full and productive employment while providing decent work and ensuring equal pay for people with disabilities. Furthermore, Harvest Café assures equal access to vocational training for those with disabilities.
City University of New York - College of Staten Island
Harvest Cafe is "great food with a mission." The goal of this inspiring enterprise is to create new opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Not only does the restaurant offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but also a certified training site for people looking to obtain new skills and accomplish goals in a unique environment. People with disabilities begin the day habilitation program as trainees and are paid by the restaurant through stipends. The program provides specific training for various restaurant stations, including table setting, food prep, or dish washing. During this time, they learn safety and social skills and how to interact with customers. Eventually, the trainees graduate from the program and are employed by the restaurant or secure jobs in other food service businesses on Staten Island.
The Harvest Café was created by A Very Special Place, Inc. The idea emerged after the founders experienced firsthand the appalling treatment of intellectually disabled individuals at the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, NY. One of the co-founders, Diane Buglioli was merely an 18-year-old college student when she began working at the school. After 11 years of working at the facility, Diane and co-founder Genevieve Benoit, had a fire in their bellies of how things shouldn't be handled. As a result, they began A Very Special Place and Harvest Café.
The inspiration for Harvest Café and its parent company, A Very Special Place, Inc., reaches back to the 1970s. As a young adult, Diane Buglioli, one of the co-founders of Harvest Café, worked at Willowbrook State School, a facility for those with developmental disabilities on Staten Island. For 11 years, she witnessed firsthand the unfair and unsafe treatment of patients at Willowbrook. The school is notorious for its heinous treatment of intellectually disabled children. Overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions, and inhumane treatment were some of the particularly egregious happenings at the facility.
The experience created a "fire in her belly" and Diane vowed to ensure that this type of mistreatment for those with intellectual disabilities would never happen again. After seeing such atrocities, Diane wanted to create a safe place where the disabled could be properly cared for. The goal was to create an environment where they would feel they belonged. Diane recounts, "being Italian the first thing that came to mind was food - which inspired the idea of opening a café."
And so, the journey began. From picking out color schemes to choosing ergonomic dining chairs, the restaurant was specifically tailored in so many ways to ensure that the trainees and staff were in a warm, welcoming environment. In 2011, Harvest Café officially opened for business. In addition to the café, there are two three-bedroom duplexes, which house staff members of Harvest Café. Since then, the restaurant has tirelessly worked to enhance program participants' confidence levels, proficiency, and social skills while simultaneously training them so that they can be placed in careers that will allow them to flourish as individuals.
Harvest Café has become a sanctuary where those with intellectual and developmental disabilities can grow into their dreams. Their journey starts as trainees in the restaurant where they train during the day and receive positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is never utilized to ensure better behavior. Concurrently, the trainees learn social skills and work parameters, such as how to interact with customers. They also gain confidence and a proficiency they didn't have before their training at the cafe. Eventually, program participants will unlock their full potential and graduate from the program. Many graduates move on to work other jobs on Staten Island, such as in catering halls and college cafeterias.
Furthermore, the Harvest Café has served as an inspiration to individuals across the country and around the globe as programs like this are hard to find in other areas. For instance, they received a phone call from an investor in India who aspires to open a similar company for his younger sister. Additionally, the Harvest Café has received visitors from across the United States, such as Chicago, and internationally, including Australia and Germany.
Harvest Café has produced many success stories over the years. For example, one of the trainees at the restaurant, Drake, has made great improvements in his social skills. When he first started the program, Drake was terribly shy and would often not talk. However, through his training, he has truly blossomed. Now, he is unafraid of taking customers' order or working the host kiosk. Another success story involves a participant who started with a four-word vocabulary. Within a year of training through Harvest Café, his vocabulary increased immensely to 600 words! Furthermore, once trainees have completed their program, they were placed in fields that were aligned with their strengths and interests. Fortunately, many local businesses have partnered with Harvest Café to employ candidates who have completed the training program and will properly compensate them in accordance with the law.
For Harvest Café, the personal benefits for the trainees far exceed the economic benefits for the restaurant. At times, decisions made by the Harvest Café may be seen as "poor business choices." However, the opportunity to see an individuals' life being positively impacted is worth the financial struggle. Hurricane Sandy also caused many financial issues for the Harvest Café as the damage resulted in the loss of a large amount of money. In addition, local community organizations often do not assist the Harvest Café as it is set away from the major shopping district in the area. However, these setbacks have not dampened their spirits. The Harvest Café continually works to attract more business to the restaurant by taking part in restaurant crawls and offering happy hour specials. The restaurant also holds seasonal promotions for Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. In addition to all the fun activities attracting customers to the business, Harvest Café provides catering for various events. So, even if customers cannot make it to the restaurant, they can hold a business lunch at the office! While Harvest Café offers such entertaining activities to draw the community in, it is evident that repeat patrons love the concept of good food with a purpose: helping people with intellectual disabilities lead fuller lives.
Harvest Café has drastically impacted the lives of everyone involved in their mission. Program participants are given a safe, nurturing environment in which they can fully blossom. They are provided living arrangements and employment training, both of which will allow participants to achieve independence and self-fulfillment. However, their reach does not end there. Harvest Café has also positively benefited the staff that works with the trainees. The heart-warming mission of the restaurant attracts even those who were not initially interested in the social enterprise field. Empowering another human being and putting them in a position to succeed with confidence is key. Diane explains, "the ability to impact another person's life is an experience you cannot get in another setting."
Diane Buglioli, Deputy Executive Director
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Staten Island, NY, US
Business Website: http://www.harvestcafe-si.org
Year Founded: 2011
Number of Employees: 201 to 500