Reprinted with permission from Washington Jewish Week.
The espresso machine isn’t connected yet. The stainless steel sink is in a corner in the back room, waiting to be hooked up to the plumbing. But the cash register is humming at Café Sunflower in Rockville, as its 10 employees train to greet and serve the public.
It’s the day after Purim and the café, not yet open, has cracked its door to sell hamantashen to a small trickle of customers. It’s part of the on-the-job training. The pastries were baked at the Sunflower Bakery in Gaithersburg, which trains people with developmental or other cognitive disabilities. Café Sunflower—off the lobby in The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington building—will do the same, except that instead of learning to bake, employees will get experience waiting tables, making coffee and figuring the bill.
“Our success is having our employees attain a level of skill so they can do the job here or anywhere else,” says Laurie Wexler, a co-founder of both the bakery and café, who was watching the training.
They’ve been learning the ins and outs of food service since late February and the day’s session begins with trainer Eva Cowen asking how their experience has been so far. Joshua Sachs says the “pro” was working with people and adds, “Con: trying to get the gloves on.”
“The customers were being very patient with me,” says Eric Edwards. “The hardest part was telling apart the prune and raspberry hamantashen.”
Jazman Edmonds says she was having an easy time with the register—a small monitor with a picture display of items for sale. “I like touch screens.”
Another trainee volunteers: “Kelsey says I have to say ‘sorry’ less.”
Kelsey is Kelsey Pitta, whom Wexler and partner Sara Portman Milner hired as café manager. The former pastry chef at Ted’s Bulletin in Washington, she calls Café Sunflower her dream job. The café will have a soft opening, she says, giving the staff time to develop their skills. And there’s still the espresso machine to tackle. The grand opening is set for April 19.
Meanwhile, the group practices the mathematics of making change. They use worksheets that are printed with bill or coin denominations. They cross out the images of the bills or coins until they add up to a designated sum. Some breeze through the exercise. For others it’s slower going. “They have a variety of skills,” Cowen says. “You just don’t know until they do it.”
A math riddle offered by one trainee stumps everyone—trainees and trainers alike: Which two coins make 30 cents, but one of them can’t be a nickel? (The answer follows the article.)
Four of the employees came from the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, a collaborator in the café along with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and its United Jewish Endowment Fund. Donors are paying for the cost of operating the café, which Wexler estimates at about $200,000 for its first year.
Once the café is fully operational, it will offer internships to high school and college students, she adds. Because the café’s purpose is to train, as well as serve up hot drinks, it’s an ideal place to show someone who has “never had a job how to work a job,” she says.
Sunflower also plans to expand its training to people interested in business operations and marketing and sales.
Feivel Cohen came to work at the café by way of training camp at Sunflower Bakery. When his mother told him that the café was hiring he decided to apply. “I feel it’s my intro into the culinary business because I want to be a chef,” he says.
Steven Rakitt, CEO of the Federation, said he hopes the café will become a meeting place for the Jewish organizations and other businesses in the building and nearby.
“Not only will we be able to get a cup of coffee and a pastry, but we’ll also be participating in changing people’s lives,” he says.
But Cowen wants customers to judge Café Sunflower on its own terms.
“We don’t want people to come here to do a good deed. We want them to come because it’s a good coffee shop.”
(Which two coins make 30 cents when one cannot be a nickel? A quarter and a nickel, of course, because if one coin can’t be a nickel, the other can.)
Top photo: Café Manager Kelsey Pitta and trainee Feivel Cohen return a tray of hamantashen to the display case as Joshua Sachs watches. All photos by David Holzel.