Bay Area café continues to elevate employees with disabilities

"We have folks on our staff that have down syndrome, Autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injuries."
PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- It's another typical day in Palo Alto. Getting your favorite coffee, cookie or sandwich at a local café.

But it's not your typical one. At the cash register is someone unique. Someone with a smile. Someone who has a disability.

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness month, here's a look at Ada's Café, a Bay Area nonprofit that continues to elevate people with disabilities.

It all started with a vision from Kathleen Foley-Hughes, a wife and mother of four, and her team of family and friends.

"Our mission is to hire adults with disabilities to provide them training and to elevate them," said Kathleen Hughes, founder and owner of Ada's Café. "We have folks on our staff that have down syndrome, Autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injuries."

"I've been working here at Ada's café for almost seven years," said Todd Cerf.

"We knew when Todd was very little, we knew he had some issues but we didn't know what they were," said Emmylou Cerf, mother of Ada's employee, Todd Cerf. "Finally, when he was 12, he was diagnosed with Asperger's."

"I have Asperger's syndrome as my disability," Todd said.

"When Todd was diagnosed, we took him to a reputable place, they told 'we're sorry to tell you this, but your son isn't going to develop really well. In fact, the best thing he could ever do would be to fold pizza boxes,'" said Dave Cerf, Todd's father. "Now as parents, that's probably the hardest thing to hear."

"I learned how to do drinks on the espresso machine...and I'm learning how to do more sandwiches," said Todd. "My favorite thing to do is to make people smile, have fun with them when they're ordering."

"So the goal for opening Ada's was to provide a place for them to belong, a safe place for them to learn, to grow, and to develop their job skills," said Kathleen.

In 2020, 17.9% of people with a disability were employed in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kathleen opened Ada's Cafe in Palo Alto in 2014. With a catering and small business background, the idea of hiring and training people came after the success of opening two volunteer-based cafes as vocational courses for students and volunteers at the Palo Alto Unified School District. First, at Terman Middle School (now Ellen Fletcher Middle School) and Henry M. Gunn High School.

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"Those programs were so successful, we found a job for every person that wanted to be involved. We got students involved. It was such a winning combination so we thought it would be great to bring it to the public."

Enrolled in the vocational courses in grade school included her son, Charlie. He is one of a pair of twins (with brother Peter). Charlie grew up with a disability (a brain injury caused by prematurity and weighed 1 1/2 pounds at birth).

"(The idea of vocational courses) started when I observed when my son (Charlie) was in the school system 20 years ago," Kathleen said. "I know things have changed in the school system. But at that point, there were no programs or programs on campus for students (with a disability) to develop a vocational skill. Whether that's cooking, functional math, so we were able to work on all of those things on a school campus."

"I wanted to help my son Charlie of course, but also his peers, his friends, people he had gone through school with since he was five years old."

She added, "When you are someone with a disability, you are marginalized to some extent. Even with the best intentions. So starting a café on a school campus gave them a real reason to be, a place to belong. And because we saw how successful that was on a school campus, we understood the Palo Alto community and that people here would love to support a business where they could get really good quality food but also do something of meaning and value with their money."

Charlie Foley-Hughes has been with Ada's Cafe since it opened. He does everything, he says. "I run the register. I make coffee. I make sandwiches. I tell customers about our menu. And I tell them we have the best coffee in the world," (laughs). "My favorite thing to do is running the register. I get to interact with the customers."

In 2018, Ada's Café faced a 60 percent rent hike. And in 2020, like many businesses in the Bay Area and throughout the country, the café was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It lost 50 percent of its business. An auction was held by one of Kathleen's friends. It saved the café.

Kathleen said there are two reasons why she named her nonprofit Ada's Café.

"We started Ada's with name Ada's Cafe because a friend in my neighborhood growing up had a grandma named Ada. And grandma Ada was nice and sweet to everybody. She made cookies and was very loving." She also named it after the Americans with Disabilities Act which was signed into federal law by the late President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990.

Kris Frekol, her favorite thing to do is taking orders. Frekol, who has been with Ada's for seven years, says she also washes the dishes, cleans the tables, makes coffee and sandwiches. She said this job has made her happy. "I like coming to work."

Jeremy Teter, who we saw cleaning the tables and chairs when we first got to Ada's, has the same duties as Charlie and Kris. But after he taking out the garbage and recycle with Kris one afternoon, he was excited to tell us about the Ada's Cafe truck. "We deliver sandwiches and pastries to the cafe and for catering."

"It will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard for," he said at a press conference at the White House.

"It was very inclusive," said Guy Schvartzbard, who has been working at Ada's Café for four years. Schvartzbard, who is from Israel and does not have a disability, remembers passing by Ada's Café and applying for a job there.

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"I took a walk. I saw this café and I need a job. I'm a barista and asked if they're hiring." He said he got an interview and learned about the cafe's mission. "It was hiring and training people with disabilities. I felt really good about it." He said the biggest misconception about people with disabilities is they cannot work. "Yes, they can."

For Jasmine Han, it was a special day when ABC7 visited. "Today is my first day," she said.

Han says she learned many new things on her first day including greeting people. "I think this is a great working experience for people with disabilities....I look forward to meeting new people."

"When I order, when I ask questions, they are friendly, they knowledgeable about their food," says longtime customer, Judy Lochead. "I wish there were more Ada's."

"We've seen him grow in so many ways," said Dave Cerf, Todd's dad. He wishes he and Emmylou could see the people who gave (Todd) the (Asperger) diagnosis and show how much he's grown with all the skills he has learned working at Ada's Cafe. "Being at Ada's has made all the difference in the world for him."

Emmylou is grateful for Kathleen for the positive impact Ada's Café had on Todd's life and the rest of the staff. "Not only can you get a job where you can learn skills, but it's in a safe environment. She gives people an opportunity to live to their full potential."

Dave says some people on the Autism spectrum might have trouble looking at people in the eye. "Todd looks at people in the eye now. And communicates well."

"No matter what disability you have, you can do anything you set your mind to. It doesn't define who you are," said Todd.

Kathleen is hopeful Ada's Café will continue to stay in business with the continued support from the community. "If you can get a great cup of coffee here and make sure someone with a disability has a job, it's a win for everyone," she said.

If would you like to learn more about Ada's Café, click here.

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