People with autism and other special needs can again find work at a Fort Salonga restaurant that has reopened and is providing jobs — including to the owner’s son and daughter — in hopes that the effort, along with Caribbean-inspired food, will draw customers.
“I’m a Mom. I didn’t come from a restaurant background,” Cause Café owner Stacey Wohl, of Northport, said. “I’m just trying to make my kids purposeful and [help] other kids like them.”
The grand reopening of Cause Café was held Tuesday, Wohl said, after a “soft opening” phase for two weeks.
“We need to find a place for our autism population,” said Debora Thivierge, executive director of Empowering Long Island’s Journey Through Autism, which operates a school and farm for people with autism.
“Once they age out [of the education system] there’s not much,” Thivierge said. “It’s more charity work than legitimate jobs.”
Wohl, a single mother, first decided to open a restaurant last year to create a business opportunity for herself in a setting where her children and others with special needs could work. The effort has evolved, but also hit bumps along the way, with Wohl closing her first two restaurants.
Ten months after opening Cause Café, Wohl took the advice of a former chef and reopened as a more upscale French restaurant called Our Table. After about five months, Wohl decided to close that restaurant and return to her “roots” by reopening as Cause Café — a place where people on the autism spectrum can work.
Wohl said it’s been heartening to see her children, Brittney, 20, and Logan, 18, learning new skills and interacting with strangers in a positive way.
“When you have kids on this level, you have to adjust your expectations,” she said. “When I saw him [Logan] mopping the floor, it was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
The new version of the restaurant has a Caribbean-fusion menu that includes tacos, jerk chicken and fresh seafood. Wohl said the menu was inspired by a trip to the Bahamas that she took with her daughter.
“I wanted a place where the food was a little bit more reasonable during the day for the moms that come in,” she said.
Wohl rehired most of her original crew, including first chef Seth Sloan, who said he’s thrilled to be back training and working with people with autism.
“They’re better workers than many people I’ve worked with in this business,” Sloan said. “They like being part of the team and having a good time.”
William Muller, 24, of Northport, said he has learned a lot by working at the restaurant. Muller, who is developmentally delayed, started with Wohl at the first incarnation of the Cause Café.
“It’s a great opportunity to work here,” he said. “I think . . . it was fabulous that she hired all kinds of different people.”
Most of the employees with special needs work during the day with the lighter, less expensive menu.
“We’re trying to give people an option,” she said. “If they come in the day time and they come for lunch, they can meet some of the kids we’re training. If they come eat at night . . . we’re going to have live music, candles, lower lighting.”