Culinary Arts: A Sweet Career for People with Disabilities

By Stephanie Mensh 

Community bakeries and cafes are popular places to gather with friends and neighbors, celebrate a team victory or cheer up when you are feeling a little low. Running these cafes can be difficult but rewarding work, especially when staff members see and hear the positive feedback from their customers.  There are two establishments in the Washington, DC suburbs that offer more than something for your sweet tooth or a quick caffeine fix. They are dedicated to training and employing people with disabilities.

In Fairfax, Virginia, Cameron’s Coffee & Chocolates provides an array of coffee drinks, tea and an assortment of freshly baked pastries and chocolates made in their own kitchen. Its founders were inspired by the successful model of Chilmark Chocolates of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, which has been turning out tourist-attracting chocolates for over 25 years, while training and employing individuals with challenges. The café’s namesake, Cameron, had the opportunity to spend time at Chilmark Chocolates to learn about the chocolate business. Cameron’s is the first business enterprise of the non-profit foundation, Every1 Can Work, which is dedicated to providing permanent employment opportunities for young adults with development and intellectual disabilities.

When I attended a reception that featured Cameron’s cookies and brownies, the blissful “oohs” and “aahs” from the other attendees enticed me to suspend my diet for an evening and indulge.  The treats were so fresh and tasty that I plan to stop by the café the next time I need sweets.

Around the beltway in Maryland, the Sunflower Bakery in Gaithersburg and its Café in Bethesda also combine skills training and work experience to prepare individuals with developmental or other cognitive disabilities for employment in baking and related industries. Sunflower partners with local employers, including bakeries and a Safeway grocery store, for advice and placement of trainees.  A number of businesses have standing orders with Sunflower to supply their baked goods for meetings and programs. I sent a tray of assorted baked items from Sunflower to the staff at the adult day center my mother attends. The staff sent a glowing thank you note, saying that these were the best (and hinted for more). 

Employment is a key element of achieving independence through community integration. These ventures, as well as similar initiatives across the country, are proof that people with disabilities can pursue careers in the culinary arts, participate fully in their communities, and that the community will support and benefit from their efforts.

For more on Cameron’s Coffee & Chocolates, which opened in October, 2013, visit their website at: http://every1canwork.com/about/

For more on the Sunflower Bakery, which opened in 2010, visit their website at:  http://www.sunflowerbakery.org

For a story about Chilmark Chocolates (no website available):

http://mvmagazine.com/news/2012/09/01/teamwork-approach-chilmark-chocolates

Stephanie Mensh is a Senior Analyst who has expertise in Medicaid, Medicare and health insurance reimbursement policies; supportive services for independent living; and housing programs for people with disabilities and chronic conditions.