Austin Hallett says his goal of becoming an executive chef began cooking after he watched “Ratatouille,” an animated film about a cartoon rat named Remy who dreams of becoming a great chef, despite the industry being “rodent-phobic.“
“When I watched ‘Ratatouille,’ I learned that, just by their skills, I’m learning the way they’re communicating and the way they’re handling the kitchen,” said Hallett, 21. “Everyone has to start from the bottom and make their way up to the top. This is an important step; you can’t just start at executive chef because you need that experience.”
Hallett is now well on his way to realizing his dream, thanks to a culinary training program for people with disabilities that runs in tandem with a fully functioning restaurant in St. Louis.
One of the biggest employment barriers people with disabilities face is that they lack experience or skills required to land a job, according to Aimee Wehmeier, president and CEO of Paraquad in St. Louis. Paraquad is a nonprofit organization founded in 1970 that seeks to empower people with disabilities by increasing their independence through various social programs.
Wehmeier and her team set out in 2018 to correct that issue by opening Bloom Café, a fast-casual restaurant in the city’s Cheltenham neighborhood, along with training, internships and job-placement services that prepare people with disabilities for restaurant careers.
“Bloom Cafe was in response to our interest in expanding employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and that’s people with all disabilities,” she said. “So it could be a physical disability, it could be an intellectual disability — one thing we knew for certain is, in the St. Louis community we see an awful lot of ‘help wanted’ signs in restaurants and the hospitality industry.”
Hallett graduated from South County Technical School in 2017 and then began taking classes at Forest Park Community College, near Bloom Cafe. There, he bumped into one of his high school teachers, who told him about Paraquad’s culinary training program — which to him seemed like a perfect fit.
He completed the program in August 2018, as well as a 10-week paid internship at the Missouri Athletic Club in downtown St. Louis. And while his is not a typical path for those who go through the culinary training program, Hallett now works at Bloom Café kitchen and handles the omelet station there on Sundays. He also works during summer months as a prep cook and food runner at The Muny, the outdoor amphitheater in Forest Park where the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre stages its summer performances.
“I like to cook omelets a lot, cook and prep them — those are my favorites,” Hallett said of his work at Bloom Café. “Because I cook in front of customers, not like in the back of the kitchen.”
He said he enjoyed his 10-week internship but also faced a few struggles.
“Dealing with people can be kind of hard, just getting everything right,” he said. “I also learned — I cooked soups there — prepping can be a little hard because you don’t want [the batches] too small or too big.”
Hallett said he learned many things in the area of food safety practices, food preparation and customer service throughout his experience.
He’s now in his first year of classes at Forest Park Community College, where he hopes to earn a degree in culinary arts. He said he loves to share his experience in the restaurant world with customers.
“I tell them anyone can cook. It just takes a lot of practice in the culinary arts skills,” Hallett said.
The 2017 American Community Survey found that 13.1 percent of Missouri’s working-age population lives with disabilities. Of those people, only 35.9 percent were employed, compared to 81.9 percent of the working-age population living without disabilities.
Paraquad’s Bloom Café and Bloom Café culinary program opened in June 2018. Since then, the program has held three 12-week training sessions, from which 22 people have graduated, according to Paraquad Major Gifts Officer Beth Jantz. The training has no age restriction, but the disabled people who participate are typically fresh out of high school or young adults in their 20s who are interested in working in the food industry.
Training classes run from 8 a.m. to noon in a kitchen that is attached to the café but is not part of the restaurant. Each class consists of about seven or eight people, Jantz said. Each day they start with a lecture-style session in which students learn concepts. Later in the morning they move on to practical application of those skills.
After completing the 12-week course, the students go on to take the ServSafe food handlers exam; ServSafe is the food and beverage safety training and certificate program administered by the U.S. National Restaurant Association and accredited by the American National Standards Institute and the Conference for Food Protection. Paraquad students have recorded a 100 percent passage rate on the exam, Jantz said. Several students also passed the ServSafe manager’s course, and one student passed the alcohol and food allergy exams as well.
Following graduation, students are placed in internships or directly into paid positions within the St. Louis area, Wehmeier said.
“Many students are leaving the culinary program ready to work,” she said, adding that the course is offered only to people with disabilities and students do not pay to take it.
Building from scratch
While Bloom Café and the culinary training program are separate operations, Paraquad leadership initially opened the restaurant as a source of financial support for the training program. The Café employs 12 people.
“I think the social enterprise part of it was that Bloom Cafe would be just a functioning restaurant that would actually contribute to the bottom line that would provide money back to Paraquad to provide support and services,” Wehmeier said. “But we also needed the cafe to do a culinary training program; at least we thought we did, in terms of having a kitchen and the opportunity for students to gain skills and those kinds of things.”
The reality, Wehmeier said, is that the restaurant portion is still very new and thus is operating in the red. Paraquad hopes the restaurant eventually will be profitable, but for now it raises funds for the culinary training program mainly through corporate sponsors.
In late January, Paraquad had nearly completed the application process to be certified as a school by the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, which would enable it to access state funding for its students, Jantz said.
The Bloom Café project began to take shape in 2017 when the Paraquad staff participated in Washington University’s Social Enterprise Innovation Competition, which consists of a series of workshops focused on idea generation and startup development.
“That was a year-long, pretty intense training, and we had to do our business plan, our marketing plan. I mean, there was so much work involved in taking that class,” Wehmeier said. “. . . It’s not enough to have a good idea. There is a lot of business acumen that goes into a startup.”
Bloom Café also received financial support from the Missouri Foundation for Health, which represented a big portion of its initial funding, she said.
“I think one of the challenges is, you know — certainly a social enterprise is an innovative idea. It looks great on paper,” Wehmeier said. “The reality is [that] we are not restaurateurs, and so we relied a lot on the community through partnerships and an advisory committee of people who were experts in the industry.”
Paraquad worked closely with nearby Forest Park Community College, as well as restaurant owners and other community members.
Even with those partnerships, it still faced many challenges upon opening the café for business, Wehmeier said. She pointed to the winter of 2018, when the weather was consistently very cold and the city experienced an unusual amount of snow.
“We started a new brunch on Sundays in November, and then it seemed like every weekend there was a snowstorm or some sort of weather that prevented people from being out in the community,” she said.
“We are still challenged by labor costs. Our manager does an excellent job of keeping food costs in the appropriate ranges and, you know, he’s continuing to work on labor. But those are the things I think every new restaurant struggles with.”
Looking to the future
Wehmeier said Paraquad is trying something new this year by increasing the course from a 12-week program to 16 weeks.
After conducting his first class during the past semester in the fall, Chef Kelly Ross, the program’s culinary instructor, wants to prepare students to not only work in the kitchen of a restaurant but in the front end as well, she said.
“So it’s still an evolution . . . the class a year and a half ago was much different than the class today, and I think we are getting better and better,” she said. “And the students are leaving with more certifications and better skills than they were even a year ago.”
And with a new staffing structure put into place in August, there will be more time to recruit students from the community, Jantz said.
Ross and Paraquad Employment Services Manager Bonnie Forker spend a lot of time in the community looking for students who would benefit from participating in the program. They also make presentations at local school districts and to nonprofit organizations.
“There were some things that were bumpy in the beginning, but I think those things are slowly being worked out in what will become a pretty competitive industry and a great initiative in the workforce-development arena,” Wehmeier said.
Starting a social enterprise is a tedious investment of time and resources, especially while simultaneously managing 20 other programs Paraquad offers, she said. Still, she said she’s proud Paraquad took it on.
“At the end of the day, am I happy we did it? I mean, absolutely,” she said. “But I will be happier as we kind of move along and see what impact we can make in the community. Because at the end of the day that’s what it’s about; it’s about us creating a pathway for individuals with disabilities to work in the community. And so I can see that success, and I know that we did something good.”