THE SUNNY kitchen off Eisenhower Drive bustles with a dozen people in striped aprons and sturdy clogs chopping vegetables, washing pots and arranging trays.
Several are packing up box lunches, and two more are taping packages of fresh-baked cookies.
“Let’s finish up these Caesar salad wraps,” directs Coastal Center Catering executive chef Angie Real. “And don’t forget the Reese’s pie.”
The company offers a cornucopia of culinary services, from fancy wedding menus to takeout casseroles, and the crew has several gigs to complete by the afternoon. It looks like any other busy working kitchen, except that besides Real and her two sous chefs, the rest of the staff members are adults with varying degrees of developmental disabilities.
Part of the Coastal Center for Developmental Services, the catering company is both a community integration program and successful enterprise. It retains the highest level of health inspection and employs nine full-time clients of the center, who carry out the prep work and presentation for corporate events and local parties along with weekday lunches for the center’s cafeteria.
“These are all very high-functioning individuals,” says Chef Real proudly. “They may not understand the full concept of a dish, but we break it down and they do a wonderful job. They’re very detail-oriented, and they take their time to make sure everything is perfect.”
The job boasts high worker retention, and some employees stay for decades. Jill Adelman has been attending CCDS since she was a teenager and has been working in the kitchen for 29 years.
“I do the sweet tea every day, and the lemonade,” says Adelman, whose husband, Eric Dewitt, works in the center’s electronics shop. “And I really like doing the cheeseburgers and French fries.”
Chef Real serves as boss and mentor, and sometimes her employees become so skilled that they find jobs outside her kitchen—CCDS alums can currently be found working at Leopold’s Ice Cream and Rise Biscuits Donuts. But the seasoned culinarian, who most recently headed up food at the Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill and came to the organization just shy of a year ago, has no plans to leave her post.
“Like a lot chefs, I got kind of burned out on the stress and long hours, and I wanted to do something to give back and still use my skills,” she recounts.
“I didn’t even know this place existed, and now I’m completely in love. My crew is all so happy to come to work every day! It’s impossible to be in a bad mood here.”
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and the U.S. Dept. of Labor is celebrating the significant contributions of disabled Americans with the theme “Inclusion drives Innovation.” CCDS has been championing that idea for years with its mission of integration, dignity and independence.
Each day, the center serves 400 adults who find stimulation and camaraderie in the various art programs and activities, and 150 to 200 are employed in varying capacities at the center and out in the community. In addition to the catering program, CCDS oversees four other microbusinesses, including a print shop where folks silkscreen high-quality T-shirts and napkins, a special assembly line that recycles thermal coupling wires for Gulfstream, a palette-packaging team and an ergonomic manufacturing mini-plant that creates footrests out of leftover airplane parts.
“We also have individuals working in the hospitals, in offices and in restaurants around the city,” says Valerie Dixon, who runs outside sales with a focus on prevocational training. “Adults with developmental disabilities tend to fall through the cracks, but we try to match people’s skill levels with a job.”
The programs differ greatly from other entities that have been accused of exploiting disabled workers for cheap labor.
“Everyone who is fully trained makes minimum wage or better,” promises Dixon. “We have a couple of folks working at the airport making sixteen dollars an hour.”
Back in the kitchen, the crew is preparing for a slew of upcoming events, which will include stacked towers of artisan cheese and meticulously arranged plates of pimento cheese toast points topped with crumbles of candied bacon. Dishes often include fresh vegetables from CCDS’s 22 lush garden beds that produced 1300 pounds of produce last year.
While workers are paid a fair wage, Coastal Center Catering is intent on keeping prices friendly for local businesses and other non-profit organizations. The affordable menus caught the attention of Meredith Gray, who is chairing the annual Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Peacock Party this Friday, Oct. 13.
“We significantly dropped our ticket prices this year to make our event more accessible, so our budget is really tight,” says Gray. “And I really liked the idea of using another non-profit. But honestly, I was impressed by Chef Real, the quality of the food and the integrity and pride of her staff.”
Gray says the chef worked with her to come up with a sumptuous spread of heavy hors d’oeuvres (including the aforementioned candied bacon toast points) for the “Feathers & Fiction” fundraiser that benefits the house museum. The event chair also ordered the fundraiser’s cocktail napkins, hand-embossed with the FOCCH’s signature peacock logo, from the CCDS print shop after touring the center with Dixon.
“It’s been a one-stop shop, and I’m so delighted to learn of this wonderful resource.”
It’s clear that Chef Real feels the same way.
“It is so gratifying to watch them grow and be able to handle any station in this kitchen,” she says as she surveys her crew with a smile.
“If you give these individuals the chance to excel, they will.” cs