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Cafe offers jobs, training to developmentally disabled

The scent of raspberry tarts and hazelnut cappuccino wafts through the Sweet Comfort Bakery and Cafe in downtown Port Washington. Some customers linger on couches, while others stop to borrow paperback books or reach for a Trivial Pursuit game.

The bakery's purpose has less to do with satisfying customers or serving treats than helping a population often in the shadows. The store opened last spring to give jobs and training to adults with developmental disabilities.

The mission is spelled out on a blackboard: "When you patronize Sweet Comfort you are helping someone realize their dreams."

Bakery operators say it is the only such business on Long Island, and one of very few in the United States. It's run by Community Mainstreaming Associates, a Garden City nonprofit group.

"We wanted a self-sustaining enterprise that could be run without taxpayer money," said Julie Samkoff, the group's executive director.

Samkoff got the idea from an upstate agency four years ago, and soon after she asked her board of directors to raise money. She admits to being skeptical when a case manager, Melissa Raphael, showed her what appeared to be an abandoned building a block from the Port Washington train station. "It was a concrete bunker," Samkoff said.

Raphael, the bakery manager, marvels at the floor-to-ceiling windows and the brightly-lighted display cases - the result of a $350,000 renovation that ended with the bakery opening in May. As a cappuccino machine wheezed in the background, Raphael spoke of the 16 workers - including nine disabled men and women - who keep the business running seven days a week. The chief bakers and supervisors are hired after a vetting process that assures they will be patient with co-workers who sometimes need help mastering tasks and learning how to work as a team.

"The people here are so much nicer than the ones where I worked before," said Denise Meredith, 48, who lives in a group home in Port Washington and recalls being yelled at during her previous jobs cleaning at two fast-food franchises. Meredith was hired to clean at Sweet Comfort, but recently she has learned to bake.

Ed Gershon, 34, who lives in Community Mainstreaming housing nearby, worked at the bakery earlier last year, then spent five frustrating months seeing if he could find another job. He recently returned to the $7.25-per-hour job baking at Sweet Comfort. He proposed honoring an employee of the month, as well as the employee with the best attendance record. "My brain is always running," he said.

The business plan called for Sweet Comfort to break even in three years, but supervisors concede that the sluggish economy might push back the goal somewhat.

One admirer of the enterprise is Michael Mignano, who used to be the pastry chef at the Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan and now owns a bakery three blocks from Sweet Comfort. In the restaurant business, he said, the disabled usually work late-night shifts, when they aren't visible to customers.

"For those who are mentally disabled, the corporate mindset has been 'out of sight, out of mind,' " he said. "Letting them interact with the public is a way of humanizing them, showing that they are regular people."

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