By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Ruth Thompson is founder and president of Hugs Cafe in McKinney, Texas, a nonprofit which employs adults with special needs.
We opened our doors October 13, 2015. We just celebrated six years. Before the pandemic, everything was going very, very well. We employ adults with special needs, and we’re actually a social enterprise. We had 23 adults with special needs on our payroll at the time of lockdown. It was business as usual.
In March of last year, the governor shut everything down. We had to send home all of our staff and close the doors. We were closed for two months before he opened things back up for pickup and delivery. We were able to bring back some of our teammates at that time.
What was really great for us during the pandemic was that we received a couple of grants from local foundations, because not only were our people being furloughed for a while, but a lot of people were losing their jobs and going hungry. So we received grants where we could bring some of our teammates back to work, even though they weren’t feeding customers. They were making sack lunches to feed the homeless and those who were food insecure. We were helping the community, but the community was helping us with these grants so that we could continue to keep our teammates employed. We do a lot more carryout than we did before, and that’s okay. It keeps us in business.
But another thing that we found was that it was also very difficult for grocery stores to keep bacon, eggs, bread, and those kinds of things in stock. We were able to get that kind of product from our food suppliers, so we were selling to the general public. We were moving from the food service industry to the grocery store industry. But it worked. It truly worked.
As restrictions were lifted, we were able to bring some of our staff back. Again, 80 percent of the people on our payroll have special needs. Sometimes along with that goes health issues. Not all of our teammates were able to come back.
Our city was very, very gracious. All cities got some government support geared to the restaurants. Some of the support money was used to build two parklets. There’s a square in downtown McKinney, and it’s a historical district with lots of cute little shops and cute little restaurants. Well, the city had two parklets built, and any restaurant that was interested in having one of these parklets, they put their name in a hat. We were the recipients of one of these parklets, which gave us the opportunity to have outdoor dining. People were still leery about indoor dining, so the fact that we were able to have a parklet in front of our building was a tremendous draw.
My faith is very strong, and I just knew that we were going to get through this. That’s why our organization is even here. I had no doubts that it was going to work out for us. And I know the pandemic is not over, but we’re back.
We close at 2 o’clock, so we’ve got this space sitting here empty with nothing going on, which is not a good business model. We decided we would start making jams and chutneys and pretzels. So we have another group that comes in after-hours. We sold these items last year for Christmas gifts. So we not only sustained, we added employees. You don’t see help wanted signs in our window. Everywhere else that is a restaurant, you see help wanted signs.
The unemployment rate for adults with disabilities who are capable of working throughout the country is over 80 percent. These are people who are capable of working, but they have a disability. So our staff treasure the fact that they have a job. We have had zero percent turnover in the six years that we’ve been open.
We have one young woman on staff, and her name is Marty. She’s a greeter, and she is the happiest person you could ever imagine. Miss Marty came into the cafe after being out for so long, and the look on her face and her excitement at being back with her peers, and being with people was just—I don’t really have a word to describe it. The happiness was unbelievable.
Our customers would come by every single week just to make sure that our teammates are employed. It’s incredible the support that we get. I’m just sitting here with a huge smile on my face thinking about each of our teammates as they came back. We’ve got Jerry, who is this great big teddy bear with Down’s syndrome. He walked in the door and hugged the first person that he saw and would not let go. It was like: I’m back. We’re back. This is family.
Really, we’re not trying to figure out how to come back. We’ve already figured out how to come back. We’re looking at moving forward. We’re getting ready to open a culinary training facility for adults with special needs. We have community volunteers who also help us. The dedication of our teammates, our neurotypical staff, our volunteers, all of that has not wavered. That’s human nature. That’s good human nature.