Friendship Café serves falafel, trains special-needs adults

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — On his first day of job training at Friendship Café and Falafel in Fort Lauderdale last month, Levi Gold hopped a bus in Hallandale Beach, missed his stop on Las Olas Boulevard and wound up somewhere in Pompano Beach. He gets distracted easily, he says, and following directions is tough.

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When Gold travels to the café now, his program coordinator, Elizabeth Camp, insists on driving him.

“That’s my overprotective side,” Camp says. “Young men like Levi are so much more vulnerable than you and I.”

Gold feels protected at Friendship Café, a new fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant and coffee shop on a mission to hire and train adults with special needs.

The restaurant opened on Jan. 15 at 1302 E. Las Olas Blvd. and is a training ground for adults with autism, Down syndrome and cognitive disabilities who have trouble finding jobs with tolerant employers in South Florida.

With its eggshell-white walls and French café-style décor, Friendship Café fits in with Las Olas’ high-priced restaurant row, sitting across the street from mega-popular drinking hot spots the Balcony and Rocco’s Tacos.

But this eatery specializes in altruism over tourism.

Gold has no shortage of horror stories about job-seeking. He was fired from his previous three jobs, he says, for invading his coworkers’ personal space. The 27-year-old never disclosed he has special needs to employers and, he admits, still doesn’t quite grasp the personal-space thing.

But no one ever complains at Friendship Café.

“When I’m here, I’m happy,” Gold says. “It’s boring at home and I don’t have anything to do except look at my phone. People are better here. Really, my number-one challenge is paying attention. I’ll turn around and bring five pitas instead of five falafel, but it’s OK.”

Mistakes are easily forgiven because Friendship Café’s first crop of trainees possess little to no job experience, says Slavaticki, co-director of the Las Olas Chabad Jewish Center.

The 700-square-foot cafe is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, but will be closed Friday evenings and Saturdays for Shabbat. The menu includes falafel pitas and hummus platters, along with vegetarian shawarma, pastries, sandwiches and coffee.

“The families have already told me it’s been life-changing,” Slavaticki says. He leads the nonprofit Friendship Circle of Greater Fort Lauderdale, a chapter he started five years ago to give special-needs children and adults a place to socialize, build self-esteem and gain workplace skills. “It gives these adults a purpose, a place to go every day, a place for communion.”

Much of the reason Friendship Café exists is because Slavaticki learned that 80 to 90 percent of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, and set out to change that statistic. The unemployment rate for workers with disabilities was 8% in 2018, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which surveyed 60,000 households. That’s more than double the rate of workers without disabilities.

“Unemployment is so high among special-needs adults,” Slavaticki says. “It gives them much-needed confidence to wake up in the morning and have something to look forward to and to make a difference in the world.”

A CIRCLE OF FRIENDS

Inside the restaurant, chef Yoram Getter deep-fries falafel balls as Levi Gold observes from a distance, while Cameron Clark, another new trainee, wipes down a marbletop table. Another trainee, Josh Tober, is learning to chop cucumbers and tomatoes as Camp, Friendship Café’s program coordinator, watches nearby.

In December, Slavaticki hired Camp, a former Broward County Schools employee who has a master’s in international education, to train the café’s new hires.

New employees assemble for training each morning in a multipurpose room atop a flight of stairs behind the café. On a recent Wednesday, Camp led off a group session by asking trainees about Thursday’s job duties. The tone felt less like job orientation and more like guided therapy – with plenty of lighthearted teasing.

“Young man, what’s your job on Thursday?” Camp asks Clark, a 40-year-old Oakland Park man, as she passed around a tray of the café’s sweet-potato fries for snacking.

“Sweep the floor,” Clark says.

“Wipe the counters,” says Evan Domobsky.

“That’s part of the job we have during the day, but what’s the first step, Evan?” Camp asked.

“Oh, spray then wipe!” Domobsky shouts, offering a wide grin.

“Good job, Evan!” Clark says, complimenting his co-worker. “But just one spray. We paid for that stuff and it’s not cheap.”

“Yes, we need to observe and connect the dots when we’re working,” Camp says. “After you wipe the counters, maybe you can pack the refrigerator with juices and sodas. Should the bottles be facing you or away?”

“Facing you,” Clark says.

“I’m going to give all your fries to Evan if you keep interrupting, Cameron,” Camp says. “Just remember that if anything feels complicated, the way to overcome it is to always ask for help.”

Adding structure and reinforcing repetitive tasks are crucial to training certain special-needs adults, Camp says after the group session. Also important is the café’s color-coding system she created: red labels on storage bins indicate tomatoes, while green labels mean cucumbers. The Friendship Café also splurged on a $15,000 espresso machine.

“It’s super-automated and one button press can make anything from cappuccinos to lattes,” says Ana Silva, who handles Friendship Café’s marketing. “It’s about using design to make it easy for adults to do their jobs correctly in the shortest number of steps.”

A MIRACLE ON LAS OLAS

When Cameron Clark overdosed on intravenous drugs 15 years ago, doctors found cerebrospinal fluid had filled the spaces around his brain. Clark’s brain swelled and “they drilled a hole in my skull to remove the fluid,” he recalls.

Still, the overdose left Clark with brain damage and retrograde amnesia. It’s hard recalling multi-step tasks and he can’t remember people he met the day before, he says, but repetition helps.

“It’s a miracle I’m alive. I wake up every morning shocked I’m alive,” Clark says. “I was addicted to heroin, meth and cocaine, and it very nearly killed me.”

Job-seeking has been especially rough since the overdose. Before the accident, he worked as a ship’s mate and often sailed to Mexico and the Bahamas, “the best job I ever had,” Clark says. After the accident, he couldn’t find work for 10 years.

Before Friendship Café, Clark’s daily jobless life left him with a constant “hollow, empty feeling.”

“There was a long period of time in my life that I wanted money so much, I sold and did drugs to get it. But I choose to be an honest person doing honest work,” Clark says. “I’m a Christian and I believe God has a purpose for me. My goal is to be a cook. I want to make those sweet-potato fries. I want to make falafel.”

Camp wants to wait before graduating Clark to the deep-fryer, but so far he has trained on chopping vegetables for salads. He likes to shadow chef Getter, who owned a falafel shop in Israel before moving to Victoria Park with his 16-year-old stepdaughter, who has special needs.

Rabbi Slavaticki says the café plans to hire up to 10 special-needs employees to work four-hour shifts. He wants 100 workers to cycle through the café’s job-training program by the end of the year. From there, his Friendship Circle will place employees with other special needs-friendly businesses in South Florida, such as America’s Got Soccer in Oakland Park and Lester’s Diner in Fort Lauderdale.

“Some adults have told us they’ve never had $20 in their pocket and they don’t know what to do with it,” Slavaticki says. “It’s teaching them the value of money. It’s about putting them out into the marketplace with our guidance to help them find a job that suits them.”