Thomas Britton, a tall, dark-haired 25-year-old with a thick mustache, has fragile X syndrome and doesn’t speak very much. But standing at a stainless-steel counter in the large kitchen of his workplace, he can grate 50 pounds of potatoes in half an hour — faster than many talkative prep cooks. That impresses his boss, and it makes Britton smile.
His colleague, Frank Stephens, 31, loves to speak. Sandy-haired, with the round face and soft features characteristic of Down syndrome, he proudly shows off an array of buffet selections. “Over here we have black-eyed peas, which has celery, vinegar and olive oil. Over here we have broccoli salad, which is very good — tasty! And one of my personal favorites: macaroni and cheese.”
Britton and Stephens work at Wildflour, a cafe, bakery and catering business in Chantilly where two-thirds of the employees have intellectual disabilities. Started in 1994 by a special-education teacher in the Fairfax County Public Schools, the nonprofit organization has expanded to employ more than 50 people. One of the 10 businesses contracted with Fairfax County to employ people with intellectual disability, Wildflour trains them as prep cooks, packagers and greeters, and sends them home with more than just a paycheck.
The idea, said the general manager, Alberto Figueiredo Sangiorgio, is to give them marketable skills — and to build self-esteem.
“This is a job,” said Sangiorgio, 61, a burly Milan native who was a chef for Sheraton Hotels in Europe and South America for 27 years before coming to Wildflour in 1998. “They don’t come here to be babysat. Our expectation is they’re going to learn something and they’re going to do better than they’re doing now.”
On a recent weekday morning, the hive was bustling. In a back room, rows of employees sat at tables, chatting as they rolled out dough and used bone-shaped cookie cutters to make dog biscuits that would be sold at grocery stores such as Wegman’s and Whole Foods.
Jessica Dempsey, 24, said her dog, Rocky, likes the ones flecked with pepperoni. William Hingston, 25, said his dog, Kozmoe, wouldn’t be able to eat any, because “my dog is up in heaven, looking down.”
The employees, who range in age from 21 to 58, work from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., make $7.25 an hour and have sick leave, vacation days and profit-sharing. Some have worked there since the 1990s.
They typically rotate through different tasks every few weeks, chopping vegetables, cutting cookies or manning the cafe counter.
“But Parma, he likes jalapeños,” said Rosana Davis, a sous-chef. “All day, he is in charge of the jalapeños.” Hearing her, a middle-aged man peered up from a table full of peppers and shyly smiled.
Around noon, Andy Walker, a sales director at the nearby Ourisman Toyota dealership, walked into the cafe area and greeted Stephens. “What’s going on, buddy?” he says. “Making everything right?”
“Yeah,” Stephens said with a serious air, standing by the buffet in his crisp apron.
Walker asked Stephens about a couple of dishes, then selected the chicken parmiggiano. Walker comes in for lunch two or three times a week, he said. “The food’s excellent, and I like what they are doing as far as helping the people who work here. It might take a little longer to get out of here sometimes, but I don’t mind waiting an extra 30 seconds to a minute.”
Up front, office manager Amanda Ott was operating the cash register, a job that, like chef, is filled by employees without disabilities. Ott said the special-needs employees have taught her some important lessons. “You learn how to treat people with respect no matter what,” she said. “Everyone’s got emotions.”
Sometimes those emotions spill over, an argument breaks out, and Ott has to get involved. “I just try to calm them, try to relate to them,” she said. “If somebody’s in the bathroom too long, someone else might start banging on the door, and you say, ‘Okay, well, you have to wait for them to finish their business; how would you like it if somebody were knocking on the door while you were doing your business?’ ”
Lavish praise is a good way to ward off the frustration that sometimes arises on the job, Sangiorgio said, adding, “You have to tell them how good they are every day.”
On the wall near his office, a handmade poster offered a list of compliments, such as “You can do it!”
At lunchtime, the long table in the break room filled up with employees, including a couple in their 20s who have been together since middle school (other couples have formed, and broken up, at Wildflour). Britton walked around and gave his colleagues friendly pats while Brian Glen, 24, scrolled through pictures of Hannah Montana on a smartphone and talked about his boss, Sangiorgio.
“He’s a good comedian — he dances, he even laughs like the Joker in Batman and Robin,” he said. “He’s like our big daddy at Wildflour. He is a good dad to have — he calms us down.”
Someday, Glen said, he would like to be “a chef, just like Alberto,” and open a restaurant called Brian’s Cafe Emporium. “It’d be fancy, but not too fancy; just a little bit, so people can afford it.”
About 1 p.m., Cornelia Stephens, Stephens’s mother, arrived to pick him up.
“We had always heard from other people, if there was one place you wanted your kid to work, it was Wildflour,” she said. “It was small, it gave the workers the opportunity to learn how to do cooking, with caring people but also people who are teaching responsibility. . . . I never worried about him; I know he’s with good people.”
Since he began working there five years ago, she said, her son “cooks like mad” at home and has converted her into a Brussels sprouts lover, using a recipe of Sangiorgio’s that involves blanching them before baking them.
An estimated 23 percent of people with cognitive disabilities were employed in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many do not seek employment, in part because of concerns about losing federal subsidies. But for those in the job market, “low expectations and misconceptions about the contributions people with disabilities can make to the workplace” present barriers to getting hired, said Michael Morris, executive director of the nonprofit National Disability Institute.
Employees at Wildflour do not appear to be in a hurry to leave, and Sangiorgio plans to hire 15 to 20 more people at the end of the month and expand the menu.
Paul Miller, a Wildflour chef for the past six years, said he gets more satisfaction here than at other places he has worked. “It can be very demanding; you have to give them lots of attention . . . you have to keep repeating yourself,” he said. But in return, you get “lots of hugs, and how much they care about you, things like that.”
You also get enthusiasm. “These guys love coming to work,” he said.
Many are not as productive as staff elsewhere, but some are more so.
“Thomas’s knife skills are better than some of the cooks I’ve had,” Miller said. “I have to slow him down sometimes to not go through too much product.”
Chopping skills aside, the job gives employees something perhaps more valuable than lines on a résumé.
“My parents say, ‘I think you’re doing a very, very good job,’ and they’re proud of me,” said Dempsey, looking up from the dog biscuits laid out neatly on a tray. Breaking into a big smile, she added, “And I’m proud of myself.”