Can better workplaces make better food?

"I think employers really need to know that if they’re looking for some smaller shifts or they’re having turnover troubles, if they uniquely hire people living with a disability, there are so many fruitful benefits from that."

As restaurants reopen their dining rooms, capable and reliable staff will be in high demand. Restaurateurs are often in particular need of employees happy to work flexible, part-time shifts built around busy times. But workers who only work a handful of hours each week are naturally going to feel less connected to that job, and that can make it a challenge to keep them serving customers and making food.

A café in Abbotsford may have an answer to that challenge. Little Sprout Café is a new social enterprise launched by Communitas Supportive Care Society that aims to both provide locals with tasty and healthy meals full of “microgreens” while hiring, training, and employing people with disabilities.

The goal is to help connect people with disabilities with an entrance into the workforce. It has done that already: of the café’s 11 employees, 8 live with disabilities, and chef and manager Jordan Rempel says accommodating people in an inclusive workplace has resulted in a fun work and learning environment. But he says there are also lessons to be learned for other businesses trying to find dedicated workers.

“I’m very new to working with people living with disabilities… But for me, I found just having an open mind—a lot of times our mindset, we can have a preconceived notion and put limits on people. So part of the mission with Communitas and part of our philosophy is breaking those down and welcoming everybody in and taking them as individuals. I think our model here has had success in the kitchen and I think people can learn from that.” The members of Rempel’s team have a range of disabilities, including some that may not be readily apparent to outside observers, but which can make navigating a busy workplace stressful or traumatic. But those difficulties are not inevitable.

“The heart of working with my team, I’ve learned, is just having good communication, asking good questions, asking pointed questions about, how can I support you? Encouraging staff to communicate and let me know their boundaries, maybe their limitations,” he said. Communication requires both time and a concerted effort, but pays off by creating a workplace that is positive, caring, and happy. That’s important in order for Communitas to achieve its goal. But it also helps make the business run efficiently, and the food taste better, Rempel said.

“It’s been really helpful to have time to ask people to share what they need to be successful at work. And what I’ve seen from that is our employee morale is super-high; the productivity, the creativity, the positivity is super-high. So ultimately, we’re working in a kitchen that’s functioning well, producing quality goods, and it’s really enjoyable to come in. Our staff are really excited to come into work, so the by-product of us taking some extra care on providing support and communication is that we have a really positive workplace that’s very efficient and flourishing.

“I think that it’s a good model,” Rempel said.

He has also seen his workers excel, he said. He cited an employee with anxiety who had found a past kitchen experience harmful, but who has been able to thrive in a busy kitchen just because of the knowledge that she has help close by, if she needs it.

“In the rush, she has multiple orders, and she’s multitasking, working super hard and having success on the line.”

Many of the employees are part-timers who prefer working relatively short shifts. And those are exactly the type of restaurant workers who are particularly hard to find in a food-service environment.

“There is a huge challenge in most workplaces to find good casual staff that work smaller-hour shifts and smaller numbers of days… and there is a high turnover in that employment,” Rempel said. “A lot of those people get that job and it’s not very important to them. They work 4 hours, they make $60 or $70 in a week. If something else comes up, it’s not a big commitment for them.

“But a unique advantage of a person who identifies as living with a disability is often that person is looking for just 1 or 2 shifts a week, 1 or 2 shorter shifts, and they really want to belong to that workplace. And they have such a high value in their life from gaining employment, which I’ve been told and which I’ve seen—that they uniquely are reliable, passionate about their work, enthusiastic to come in.”

“I think employers really need to know that if they’re looking for some smaller shifts or they’re having turnover troubles, if they uniquely hire people living with a disability, there are so many fruitful benefits from that.”

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