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.”