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.”