Today's special: a cafe on a mission of empowerment
CNN) -- Drake takes drink orders, greets regular customers with a warm handshake and sets the tables for the next wave of the lunch crowd. It's a stark change from the sheepish man who patrons first encountered when Harvest Café opened its doors in the beginning of 2011.
"My goodness, it's like night and day. You'd see the change in him week by week," says Jean Ringhoff, a regular at the café who works at a nearby bank. "At first, he barely made eye contact."
Drake, like the restaurant itself, now commands a second look.
The pale yellow house with the white wrap-around porches serves not only as a fully-operating restaurant, but also as a day habilitation program for people with developmental disabilities.
Harvest Café is owned and operated by A Very Special Place (AVSP), a not-for-profit corporation for people with varying degrees of developmental disabilities on Staten Island, New York.
Day-to-day operations in the café - whose slogan is "great food with a mission" - are carried out by both paid, trained restaurant workers and AVSP trainees (or "consumers" as AVSP calls the people in their programs) with disabilities. On-site, the latter receives occupational training to prepare them for entry into the workplace, and ultimately, a more independent and fulfilling life.
The corporation has a variety of "day-hab," vocational programs, but the restaurant concept took shape after AVSP directors noticed how quickly the spots filled up in their recreational cooking classes.
"What's the number one industry in New York City? Food. And what's the number one thing that all of our consumers really like? Food. It's something everybody can relate to," says Diane Buglioli, the Deputy Executive Director of AVSP.
Despite its now sunny exterior, the restaurant location itself has a somewhat storied past: The current café was a motorcycle shop, gentlemen's club and then condemned for about five years before the AVSP made it their own special place - right down to the art on the walls, which is created by the program's enrollees.
Thus far, two trainees -- Drake and Shanta -- have found a recipe for success and been promoted to paid employment. Because the nature and severity of the trainee's disabilities varies greatly, Bulglioli says sometimes that route isn't always a viable option, but the sense of self-reliance and independence from the training program can be monumental.
Even on slow days, the trainees practice daily skills like taking each other's orders and setting tables so their education stays on pace.
Buglioli says the trainees start slowly with one skill level - like folding napkins - then move up to another more advanced skill level - like chopping lettuce - as the supervisors advise. The skill set is important, but Buglioli says it's also necessary that the trainee can handle the social environment of the restaurant as well and remain safe in the kitchen under the guidance of the hired employees.
"We're careful when we hire people because they have to have a feeling and a sensitivity working here - and know that it might take longer for them to do something," says Buglioli.
Shannon Molokie, a hired waitress at the café, calmly says, "Come back to the kitchen, it's ok, we'll figure it out," when one of the trainees brings out an iced tea to the wrong table.
Molokie, along with the other hired staff like manager Nicholas DiBartolomeo, go through on-site training of their own to learn how to interact with people with special needs.
Back in the kitchen, Alan, an AVSP trainee, tops off a bowl of bread pudding with whipped cream.
"Wait, I forgot the cinnamon," he says, as a waitress reaches in for the order.
A thick New York accent comes from behind the burners. "Alan's the man," says Rob Burmeister, the chef at Harvest Café.
Burmeister was forced to close his own Staten Island eatery, Chow Gourmet, when the economy took a turn for the worst. He was looking for his next project when he came across the opening in the paper.
"It was perfect because I always wanted to blend cooking with helping out special needs people," says Burmeister. "My nephew has special needs, so I finally had a reason to bring them both together and do it in one shot."
While people in the restaurant industry are notorious for their fire-and-brimstone temper tantrums, Burmeister says there's none of that in his kitchen. To him, it's a welcome change.
"You can work all your life in a restaurant trying to teach people and they don't want to be there, but the consumers are great," he says. "They want to be here, they want to learn."