In the past three years, the program has helped nearly 40 special-needs adults prepare for careers in food service while growing to a $75,000-a-year catering business. Now it’s primed for investment.
By Matt Skoufalos
Job hunting in today’s economy can be a significant challenge, but for job-seekers battling developmental disabilities, mental health issues, or other impairments, finding work in a supportive environment is even harder.
Barbara Abrams, Director of Special Needs Programs at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey in Cherry Hill, fielded a lot of inquiries from clients looking to enter the restaurant business, but found no training “specifically geared for this population,” she said.
“There are programs at the community college and private programs, but the level of academia that one needs to take was too difficult for our clients,” Abrams said. “If we started a culinary training program for individuals with developmental disabilities, we might be able to help those individuals get jobs.”
In 2013, the federation won a social entrepreneurial grant from the NJ Office of Faith-Based Initiatives (OFBI) to launch Soups and Sweets, a vocational program focused on food preparation training that also doubled as a form of supportive employment for adults with developmental disabilities. Three years later, it’s grown into a business projected to hit $75,000 in annual sales.
As the grant funds that seeded the project expire, Soups and Sweets is seeking additional investment capital to sustain its operations. On Wednesday, its leaders are headed for the New Jersey Impact Investor Gathering in Newark, where an exclusive funding opportunity awaits. With an infusion of cash, the organization could upgrade its kitchen, add a delivery service, and launch a food truck to participate in more community events.
From a regional catering enterprise, Soups and Sweets has expanded into wholesaling its products at Rockhill restaurant in Cherry Hill, stocking a bakery kiosk at ShopRite, and growing a “lite fare” menu that includes wraps and salads. Although the business is known as much for its food as the opportunities it provides, “I don’t think the products would be able to take off like that if they weren’t good,” Abrams said.
“I think people recognize that the proceeds from the sales of the catering business go back into the training program,” she said.
“This program really empowers people to find jobs that they’re really passionate about. These are people who love food service and would not have had this opportunity without this program. It teaches other people who are employed in these agencies that people with disabilities have the ability to work alongside with them and to be contributing members of society.”
In its third year, the 200-hour program has graduated 37 adults; 30 of them have found work, and 26 of those jobs are in the food service industry. Students have been hired at places like Iron Hill Brewery, Feller’s Bakery, ShopRite, Chick-fil-A, Nutri-Serve, and the Lion’s Gate retirement community. Every graduate completes the ServSafe food handling program and has the opportunity to take its certification exam at the conclusion of the course.
‘We like to see people grow and expand’
Chef Louis Ruttenberg, who heads Soups and Sweets, trains his students to learn the basics of food work, and challenges them with a variety of recipes and techniques so they get a broad background of instruction. Although he runs “a quiet kitchen,” the chef said he doesn’t insulate his students from the chaos that can happen in the food business, either.
“We’re trying to make them as independent as possible so that once they have a task, they’re good in the real world,” Ruttenberg said. “We don’t coddle; if something’s not right one or two times we try to correct it.
“I like the idea that not only are we making great product but people are learning and growing,” he said. “People love buying the stuff not just because it tastes wonderful, but they’re doing a good job for these kids in the community.”
“It’s different,” said Marsel, a student in the Soups and Sweets program. “You get to learn a lot of new things for the inside world and the outside world too. [The instruction] helped me a lot at home [and helped me] to pursue a career in the cooking industry.”
Another student, Samantha, said she loves learning new recipes and baking sweets like coconut macaroons, hamen-taschen cookies, and marble cake. Her cohort, Marissa, said the program has offered her “a lot of different kinds of experience.
“I love baking,” she said.
Soups and Sweets graduate Walter Endicott was the first extern to take a position at Rockhill, and owner Andrew Welder couldn’t be more pleased with his contributions to the business.
“Walter has been our number two prep person since he came on,” Welder said. “He’s been here about a year. He started for a couple hours two days a week, and now he’s doing three days a week, and he’s going to have his hours extended if he wants.”
Welder said his philosophy is to be mindful of Endicott’s limitations, “but on the other hand, we throw them out the window.
“We throw people in the deep end and see how they do, and we like to see people grown and expand,” he said. “He did a really fantastic job.”
Welder said Soups and Sweets “provide[s]a good base-level education for how to survive in the kitchen and how to read recipes. The program also isn’t afraid to shake up its menu.
“Whenever they have something new, we like to be the guinea pigs for them,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in using business to help the community out. It seemed like a natural partnership for us.”
For more information on the JFCS Soups and Sweets Program, call 856-424-1333, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.