October 23, 2023

Creating opportunity for workers with developmental disabilities

Special-ed teacher turned restaurateur ensures employees thrive at Gerry’s Cafe.
 Griffin, center, with two staff members

Griffin, center, with two staff members, says the goal at Gerry’s Café is to offer job opportunities so her employees can shine, succeed, and feel valued.

For Natalie Griffin, parlaying a career as a special-ed teacher into owning Gerry’s Café in Arlington Heights, Ill., has created joy not just for her, but also her staff of 42 team members with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The fullservice restaurant, which opened in August and operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, not only serves breakfast and lunch daily, but also caters and offers a full barista line of specialty coffee drinks. The employees, many of whom have Down Syndrome, autism, or cerebral palsy, are among a category of workers typically unemployed or underemployed. At Gerry’s, they’re paid $15.70 an hour, and are learning job skills that could help create career opportunities for the future, Griffin says.


“We are offering job opportunities to these individuals so they can shine, succeed, feel valued and experience the contributions they’re making to this business,” she says. “They’re also getting an opportunity to engage with our community and create ongoing relationships.

“As a special-ed teacher, I worked to get my students ready to graduate at age 22 to go on to different jobs. We offered internships, community-based training, and taught them the necessary skills so they could be as independent as possible, but we found—and we see this nationwide—that a lot of businesses weren’t willing to take a chance on hiring individuals with disabilities, even though they had skills. There’s a national statistic that 80% of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed. We—my business partner, [restaurateur] Amy Philpott, and I—wanted to help change that. We wanted to make a difference, so we opened the café.”

The importance of training

The employees, aged 22 to their 50s, receive about six weeks of operational and culinary training when hired, and work part time in accordance with government regulations. Griffin says their training includes cooking/baking, teaching them how to make eye contact, steadily carrying beverages to the tables, taking orders on touchpad technology, and properly cleaning and sanitizing tables, among other duties. They are also required to complete the Association’s ServSafe certification program to ensure they receive proper food safety training.

VIDEO: Gerry’s Café provides opportunities for workers with intellectual disabilities

“We evaluated them in the five different areas and gave each employee a score. If it was 80% or higher, we hired them,” she says. “I’m so proud of every one of them,” she says. “It’s going so well; I just can’t stop smiling.”

According to Griffin, Gerry’s Café was named for Philpott’s aunt, Geralyn Whemer, who was diagnosed as an infant in 1958 with Down Syndrome and died at age four. The restaurant, she says, is a reminder to everyone of how far people with disabilities have come over time and the strides they will continue to make.

“I wanted us to be that place that says, ‘let’s try, let’s do this.’ When I look at each person we’ve hired, I believe 100% that they can do the job. It’s been up to us to figure out how to help them learn and understand, whether it’s by breaking things down step by step, with visual demonstration or verbal explanation. It’s a lot of practice and repetition, but they’re doing it. They have truly surpassed my expectations in their contributions to the success of the café.”

Griffin hopes Gerry’s Café is going to challenge other business owners to look differently at people with different abilities; to give them a chance to show how they can contribute.

“We want them to see their success and independence and think they could hire them to work in their businesses. Once they take a little extra time to train them so they can learn their jobs, they’re going to see how loyal they are and how much pride they take in their work. I know they’re going to get a great return on their investment.”

Griffin and Philpott intend to grow Gerry’s Café and expand job opportunities for more people with developmental disabilities in their community. They’re currently working on opening a satellite location at the Arlington Heights Senior Center, where they’ll serve high-quality coffees and fresh-baked goods.

“Our goal is to remain sustainable and become profitable,” she says. “We want the community to keep embracing us and to keep coming back with their friends.”

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