WATERTOWN — In a coffee shop kitchen, Stephen Mallett of Waltham split grapes in half with a small knife. He counted out the number necessary to place neatly next to soft cheeses and crackers. He concentrated, barely looking up. The tall man prefers working in the back.
Mallett’s shy, but comfortable in the kitchen. His dad always told him he could cook, but he’d never gotten paid for those talents. He majored in biology and got a job with an antibiotics company. A stroke eight years ago interrupted his life. Finding a job, any job, required convincing people he was capable. But interviews were difficult, until he found his way to the Power Cafe, named that because it was created not just to employ but to empower people with physical and developmental disabilities.
Last month, Mallett, 48, received his first paycheck in more than seven years.
“It’s a tribute to my dad,” he said. “I am not my disability.”
According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, just 19 percent of people with disabilities are employed, in comparison to almost 70 percent without disabilities. Galit Schwartz — a former software engineer, former schoolteacher, mother of five, and volunteer for children with special needs — was aware of the limited number of opportunities. So she decided to create one, founding Power Cafe. She partnered with an organization called Triangle, based in Malden, which helped her create a training manual for employees and consulted on the menu. Schwartz brought her love of teaching from the classroom to the cafe, creating food-prep instructions and step-by-step lists.
“It was fascinating seeing this place come to life,” Schwartz said. “We looked at how to break down instructions and explained parts of the job, like doing the dishes and preparing recipes.”
She searched for a location to plant her new business, but kept returning to her own backyard of Watertown. Then she found this location, once a Mexican restaurant called Acapulco, and after that Royal, whose operator renovated and brought it up to code.
The Power Cafe opened just before Thanksgiving at the corner of Main and Lexington streets. It started serving brunch in early December.
On the menu are frittata platters, cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, pastries, and more. Its small but growing collection of dishes is born of suggestions by customers and staff. The menu also incorporates Mediterranean flavors and recipes; Schwartz hails from Israel. Hummus and pita platters are complemented by flatbreads and salads with names like “Lettuce Turnip the Beet” and “A Fig-Mint of Imagination.” Schwartz envisioned combating stereotypes with fresh challah, hot carafes of coffee, and good conversations. Her staff of two works in tandem, teaching each other. Mallett takes care of most of the cooking and improves upon recipes, while Rachel Gatzunis, an eager 22-year-old from Watertown, brings an appreciation for customer service.
Both completed 100 hours of training in the culinary arts at Bunker Hill Community College before Triangle placed them in their paid positions. Staffers with Triangle bring a handful of young adults to the cafe for unpaid internships, as well. According to Triangle, “80 percent of young adults with disabilities who don’t have job experience before they graduate from high school will never secure employment.” The organization worked with more than 400 job seekers last year, according to Jeffrey Gentry, director of youth services and community relations, and found nearly 200 positions for them.
Gatzunis had Schwartz as a math teacher in the sixth grade at Watertown Middle School. She turned down two other jobs to work at the Power Cafe. She remembers Schwartz helping her work out word problems when she was a little girl. Schwartz was a patient instructor and made Gatzunis feel like any other student, placing stickers at the top of her worksheet to show a job well done.
A little more than a decade later, the teacher gave her student her first full-time job.
Gatzunis is the first to arrive most mornings. She unlocks the door as sun streams in through the windows. She flutters about sweeping and arranging napkins. She greets people before they even cross the threshold from her place near the cash register.
“I like working with people,” Gatzunis said. “And dealing with the front end of everything . . . you learn a lot of this stuff with time.”
On the walls are eclectic paintings by adults with disabilities from Gateway Arts in Brookline. The coffee beans are roasted by a company called Furnace Hills Coffee in Westminster, Md., that employs and advocates for people with special needs.
That morning, the first customer arrived at 8 a.m.
“Welcome to the Power Cafe,” Gatzunis enunciated, loudly and proudly. “The muffins have been selling like hotcakes.”
“Thank you very much,” Gatzunis said. “Come back if you like it.”
This confidence, she said, isn’t always easy to muster. She wonders how people perceive her.
“For me, people think I can’t do what they can do,” Gatzunis said. “They put you down for having a disability. . . . It makes me second guess myself a lot.”
She writes about these doubts in poems. A lover of the band One Direction, spending time with her friends at the mall and going to movies with her family, she used to worry about seeming “normal” in high school. She came to realize she just learned differently.
“I want people to know I have many abilities,” Gatzunis continued. “I want them to see what we can do if given the chance.”