Diane Buglioli is always looking for new ways in which she can help A Very Special Place serve its people better.
Since 1980, the non-profit organization has been providing support to people with developmental disabilities on Staten Island, a number that has grown to more than 1,600 today.
It has extensive day programs where the staff of 300 provides rehabilitation services for children, teens, adults and senior citizens. It has a large community center that runs like a YMCA. It has an after-school program that works with youths on homework and recreation. And it has outside supportive living spaces, where it provides support a few hours each week to needy adults where they live.
A Very Special Place also helps developmental disabilities with on-site job training, but it often runs into an issue with job placement, said Buglioli, the organization’s deputy executive director.
“Whenever we design programs, as you are working with them, you find out that, like anyone else in life, they move through a continuum,” she said. “You find that there are areas where people like to work, but getting a job in that setting is very difficult.”
One of those difficult settings just happens to be one of the top employment sectors in New York City – the food service industry. Instead of trying to find companies where it could send its people to train, A Very Special Place had the novel idea to start up its own business. Called The Harvest Café, the New Dorp Lane establishment blends workers with developmental disabilities and restaurant professionals to provide both a learning experience for its constituents and a tasty meal for patrons.
“We thought that if we tried to operate the café ourselves, we could work more intensively in that setting,” Buglioli said.
A staff of 12 people with developmental disabilities works rotating two-hour shifts at the café every day, handling duties such as hosting, serving, busing, food preparation, dish washing and cleaning.
The 21 total participants in the program are mixed in with professional restaurant staff that help supervise and teach them. The head chef is Rob Burmeister, who used to run Chow restaurant on the Island.
A Very Special Place cycles its people through all the responsibilities in the restaurant to find out what they like the most, and then they are trained in that specific area.
“We have some people who have just blossomed in this setting,” Buglioli said. “It’s just really motivating to them. They have a certain level of pride that they get from the setting they’re working in.
“They’re developing those skills in a really novel environment for them. If you asked the restaurant staff, they would say the same thing.”
Running The Harvest Café has been a novel experience for the staff of A Very Special Place, too. It has required the organization to step out of its comfort zone of providing services to people with developmental disabilities to running a business, sort of a for-profit arm of the non-profit organization. Plus, the restaurant business is “quirky,” Buglioli said; it could be busy when they least expect it and empty when they think there will be a huge crowd, which creates challenges with training.
In this first year of the restaurant’s operation, A Very Special Place has been working to build a solid customer base. The Harvest Café is open for breakfast and lunch on weekdays and hosts a once-a-month weekend brunch that has sold out its 34 seats each time. It has also handled catering jobs, and about a month ago began delivery service for places in its immediate area.
Buglioli said the staff is considering offering a special monthly evening service similar to that of its weekend brunch, as well as possible evening cooking classes that would teach both their people with developmental disabilities as well as the general public.
“I always like to blend things,” she said. “If we feel that we have the right package in place, we wouldn’t be adverse to doing it someplace else.”
The Harvest Café is still too new to truly assess its revenue stream and its prospects for the future in this arena, Buglioli said. For now, it’s working on ensuring that it stays in the black and reinvests the profit into the training and products at the restaurant.
If the restaurant were purely a for-profit business, without a connection to A Very Special Place, Buglioli said she would “bang” it with a bunch of advertising and marketing.
Since it’s not, they have relied mostly on word of mouth to expand the customer base. She hopes to soon get businesses and networking groups to host weekly or monthly meetings at the café, an experience she believes would benefit all involved.
“This has been a very uplifting experience for both sides of the table, not only for the consumers but for the customers,” she said. “The environment has been working on a number of different levels. It’s great food with a mission.”