When is a café not only a café?
When it is also a social services program that provides young adults on the autism spectrum with jobs, and the practical education that comes along with getting and holding a job.
When is a social services program not only a social services program?
When it is also a café!
Lillian’s Café is in the lobby of the JCC Rockland in West Nyack, in a space that has tended to defeat entrepreneurs; it provides grab-and-go breakfasts, lunches, and snacks to the staffers, gym-goers, parents, and other people who hurry or saunter through the lobby between 7 in the morning and 2:30 in the afternoon; soon it will be open until 4. (It opened on May 1, although it will have a more formal launch on May 30, once the initial challenges have been worked through.)
And it provides an opportunity for people who have autism to work, to grow, to learn, to meet new people, and to establish relationships. It’s not make-work, and they’re not stuck away in the back somewhere stocking shelves or bagging groceries. (Not that there is anything at all wrong with doing those important jobs, but sometimes people on the autism spectrum, like anyone else anywhere else, want to challenge themselves to do more.)
The café is doing two things at once, Michele Koenig, the director of clinical programs at Rockland Jewish Family Service, who is heading the project, said. “The premise is to be able to employ adults with autism, so we are running it as a program, but it is also an independent business.”
It’s not a new idea, she said; similar but not identical ventures have been opened in other places. It’s also an outgrowth of a summer program. “For some time, Maria and I have been toying with the idea,” Ms. Koenig said. (That’s Maria Dowling, RJFS’s CEO.) “We run a summer camp for teens with autism, for people from 14 to 21, and over the last five years we have run a café on the camp’s campus, so we have been working with the idea of teens on the spectrum learning work skills.” Camp Kipanga is on the campus of Ramapo College in Mahwah, on the other side of the Rockland/Bergen line, and so is the summer café that some of its campers staff. “The café is so successful during the summer that we’ve wondered about how we can expand it,” Ms. Koenig said.
The agency’s offices are at the JCC, so she and Ms. Dowling have watched a procession of vendors trying and failing to run a café, Ms. Koenig said. “We looked at it, and we said, ‘Hmmm. How can we do this?’ So as soon as the last vendor left, we said, ‘Let’s see what we can do.’
“So we sat down and figured out who are the key figures we need to make it a success.”
Given that they wanted to run a café, the first person they needed was someone “with a background in food and catering,” Ms. Koenig said. They’d been very impressed with Angela Rivera, who was in charge of food preparation, menus, and purchasing at the summer program, “so we approached her, and she said yes right away.”
“And then we said that we also needed two other typical” — as in neurotypical — “employees,” Ms. Koenig continued. “One to work in the back, handling food, and one to work in the front, who can help with the register, with the customer service piece.”
Then “we had to think about adults on the spectrum who can benefit from this opportunity for more meaningful employment.
“So we handpicked four young adults. They’re all post high school, from 19 to 26 years old, three men and one woman, and we’ve slowly been training them.” Three of the four already have part-time jobs — their jobs at Lillian’s Café are part-time as well — “working at ShopRite and Stop & Shop, mostly bagging and stocking shelves. They’re maybe getting two shifts a week. That’s not enough. Our goal is not to employ them full-time, but to give them maybe three, four, or even five shifts a week. And it’s more meaningful employment.”
For example, Ms. Koenig said, “One of our employees had started his career working at McDonald’s. He’d worked there for a year or so, and then came back and said, ‘I’m ready for more.’ So we found him a job at ShopRite. He’s bagging groceries, for two shifts a week. He’s been there for about two years, and he told me again, ‘I think I’m ready for more.’ And I thought, ‘Interesting.’
“So when we started thinking about the café, I thought that this was a perfect opportunity for him.
“He had some anxieties about starting something new, but he picked up on how to run the register super quickly; he’s doing a great job, and he tells me that he is very happy. This is a more meaningful type of employment, and he’s learning new, much higher-level skills.”
The tasks are divided up among the four employees on the spectrum. “We have one who pretty much works in the back, handling the food; one who works primarily in the front, dealing with the cash register and customer service; and two who can float,” Ms. Koenig said.
The café, which is kosher and dairy, can serve about 30 people at a time. It’s “grab-and-go style, rather than short order,” Ms. Koenig said. “We have mostly pre-packaged foods that we make fresh every day; salads, sandwiches, soups. And then we have your standards — bagels, tuna and egg salad, grilled cheese — and coffee and muffins.”
The goal is to keep people employed there for as long as they wish to be, with the understanding that some are likely to stay for a long time and others to see it as more transitional; RJFS works with other agencies to try to provide other internships and work study. “We will be doing a lot of collaboration,” Ms. Koenig said.
The JCC lobby is a great place for the café both because lots of people go by it very often, and therefore it’s a tempting place to stop for a quick snack, but also because of its proximity to the RJFS offices. “Our staff is always available,” Ms. Koenig said. “From an emotional standpoint, it is useful to have us here, should an issue arise.”
The soft launch has gone well so far, she added. “There has been a wonderful reception to it, from staffers and gym-goers and adults who are coming here to play cards. The space was empty for five months, so they were waiting for us.”
Because the café is at the heart of the community, most people who buy food there know the backstory, and it’s printed on each menu, so it’s hard to miss. “But if you just walk up for a sandwich, you wouldn’t know,” Ms. Koenig said. “It is operating very much as a café.”
The Lillian in Lillian’s Café is Lillian Adler, who lived in Rockland County before moving to Englewood at the end of her life. She died in 2018; on May 19, many of the organizations that create Jewish life in Rockland County, including Rockland Jewish Family Service, will join to remember her at a tribute brunch.
“She was so warm and caring and giving and supportive that we thought that her name was the ideal name to give to the café,” Ms. Koenig said.
The café has its own website, lillianscafe.org; now the site has the café’s menus and a bit of its story, but it will grow and develop, like the café it chronicles, as time goes by and the café and its staff also grow.