Gourmet food and a helping hand

Taking its name from a mythical bird that rises from the ashes to begin life anew, Café Phoenix is a unique San Francisco eatery that offers second chances to overlooked workers with mental-health disabilities.

The cafe opened in June as a joint effort between Richmond Area Multi-Services, a mental-health clinic, and Hire-Ability, a nonprofit organization that connects Bay Area employers and trained employees with disabilities.

Located just next door to Hire-Ability in the organization's renovated staff kitchen, the cafe employs 10 people diagnosed with mental-health disabilities ranging from severe depression to schizophrenia. The goal is to help the workers develop some of the skills needed to work in the food-service industry and then move on to a permanent position.

"It's a good way for people to get some realistic training, a real opportunity to use an espresso machine, or to work with a chef," says Daniel Michael, director of Hire-Ability. "But they also have a safety net, with counselors right next door."

At least one psychiatrist or counselor is always on site during the cafe's business hours, giving employees a temporary refuge from the stress of working in a busy job.

That support system is invaluable to cafe employee Jason Bennett, who works three days a week washing dishes, watering plants, and cleaning. Regular conversations with Hire-Ability's staff have made a big difference in his success as an employee.

"There have been times when things have really bothered me," he says. "Hearing comments from other people sometimes makes me upset, but there are some terrific people working here. They communicate with each other and issues are resolved."

Each time he steps into the kitchen, Mr. Bennett says, he must listen to customers and co-workers while trying to silence the schizophrenia-related voices in his head. "When I have idle time, I hear voices, so having something to do during the day and having a stabilized setting really helps me," Bennett says. "If I was working somewhere else, I probably wouldn't fare as well."

People with mental disabilities often are overlooked by employers, but work is an integral part of a client's therapy, says Amy Kwan, Hire-Ability's intake coordinator.

"It's important to put them in a role where they have responsibilities and a reason to get up in the morning. Otherwise, they might not do anything during the day and just go to therapy once a week," Ms. Kwan says. "Interacting with people gives them challenges and things to work on with therapists. Going to therapy is helpful but [it is] not enough."

Manning the cash register during the lunch rush can be intimidating for anyone. But cafe workers usually rise to the challenge. "A lot of clients will have low energy when they're in therapy, but when you put them in the cafe, to my surprise, you usually see a totally different side," Kwan says. "They are very helpful and engaging and show initiative."

Some of the cafe's visitors are more curious about the employees than the food, says Albert Yu, a Hire-Ability employment consultant. "Some become worried about the quality once they find out what we're all about, but we have an open kitchen and everyone can see for themselves that this is a normal restaurant."

Hire-Ability screens potential clients and prepares those transitioning to the cafe with training sessions on managing stress and communicating with customers. "It's more dangerous to put up a 'help wanted' sign and bring in people off the street," Michael says. "We have [thick] charts on our clients and know their challenges and strengths."

Tom McClary, who works near the cafe, occasionally stops by for a gourmet sandwich. He didn't find out about the Hire-Ability connection until his third visit, he says.

"Sometimes things slow down a bit, but other than that there are no real differences between eating here and anywhere else," he says. "It's fantastic that every sandwich or burger I buy supports a great cause, but the bottom line is the food is great and the service is friendly."

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