Watertown’s Power Café seeks to empower disabled community

From the outside, Power Café is the kind of unassuming store-front that dots many an American Main Street. But this coffee shop, on the corner of Lexington and Main Streets in Watertown, is unlike any other in the area. Power Café, as you may have guessed from the name, refers to empowerment: the coffee shop exclusively employs people with disabilities. Upon entering the eclectically decorated café, I’m immediately greeted by a smiling team of three people who are each proudly wearing their blue-and-white Power Café hats.

Galit Scwartz warmly welcomes me in, and the cheerful Rachel Gatzunis shows me where the medium roast is. Behind me, the shy, bearded Stephen Mallett brings out his freshly baked blueberry muffins. The feeling of mutual respect and friendship between them is palpable and translates into a general atmosphere of warmth and familiarity—not a bad vibe for a morning coffee at your local café.

Since opening its doors to the public in November, Power Café has already managed to build strong relationships with its customers, several of whom drop in throughout the morning and are on a first-name basis with the staff. Schwartz, the owner, says one of the reasons she wanted to open a coffee shop is because “it has a public face. … It’s interfacing with the community, it’s part of the community,” she says. “A lot of the places that do employ people with disabilities kind of keep them in the back rooms.”

Schwartz, who is 46 years old, has followed an unconventional career path from being a software engineer to a sixth-grade math teacher and, now, a restaurateur. The energetic mother of five says she first realized the need for employment opportunities for disabled adults while volunteering with children with Down syndrome four years ago.

“I had a chance to really get to know them, to really understand the disabled community and the issues they face,” she says. “One of the things that became very clear is that while children with disabilities have lots of resources available to them, that drops off completely when they grow up,” she adds. “There’s huge unemployment and a huge gap between what’s needed and what’s available.”

One of the organizations trying to close that gap is Triangle, which is based in Malden. It provides training for people with disabilities through Bunker Hill Community College and aids their entry into the workforce. Two of Triangle’s new graduates are Gatzunis and Mallett, who have been placed at Power Café after completing the organization’s new culinary arts course.

For Gatzunis, who is 22 years old, the placement was something of a blast from the past, but one that was very welcome, as she started her first-ever job. “Galit was my sixth-grade math teacher, so when I found out about this I was really happy that I would be comfortable working with her,” she says.

Gatzunis grew up in Watertown and has always enjoyed cooking. A self-described “people person,” she’s a natural in her new role of assisting customers, making great coffee and helping with food preparation. Like many young adults, she’s saving up to help pay for college. Her positive experiences at Power Café have inspired her to think about pursuing an associate’s degree in culinary arts so she can one day start her own business.

“One of my main goals is to open a café or restaurant like this one run by people with disabilities because of my own personal disabilities. I don’t think anyone should be discriminated against,” she says. “People tend to see what I can’t do, not what I can do. That really has brought my confidence down a lot through the years,” she adds. “But I love this job because I know that I’m not alone. Now I’m proving [those people] wrong and proving to myself that I can do things that I set my mind to.”

One of her favorite parts of the job, she says, is getting to work with Stephen Mallett, who took her under his wing during training and remains a supportive teammate at work. Mallett, 48 years old, grew up in Weston, graduated from college and worked as a biologist for an antibiotics company before a stroke changed his life nine years ago. He’d been searching for a job for nearly a year before he discovered Triangle and decided to try a new career in what had been a long time hobby: cooking.

“My father always said I should be a cook,” he says. “It’s really nice to see other people eating my food and enjoying it.” Indeed, reviewers on Yelp rave about the delicious sandwiches, salads and baked goods to be had at Power Café. A tall, gentle, bear of a man, Mallett could easily be confused with Santa Claus around Christmastime. Funny, thoughtful and always ready to experiment with recipes, it’s easy to see why both Gatzunis and Schwartz look to him as a beacon of knowledge in the kitchen.

“He’s an amazing resource,” says Schwartz. “I learn from him all the time.” Schwartz has worked hard to make Power Café an inviting community space. Half the tables left by the previous owner were moved to the basement to make space for wheelchairs to maneuver. A handicap door was put in for easier accessibility. Kids are always welcome and encouraged to color with the myriad crayons and paper in the room. A lending library shelf and weekly adult coloring hour will appeal to almost everyone else.

Going beyond just employing people with disabilities, Schwartz also uses her business to champion others in the disabled community. The café’s artwork is supplied by Gateway Arts, an organization serving Boston-area artists with disabilities, and the gourmet specialty coffee on offer is sourced from Furnace Hills Coffee, a Maryland company that employs developmentally challenged people.

Bringing people of all abilities together at Power Café is a step in the right direction, according to Jeff Gentry, Triangle’s director of community relations, who points out that four out of five disabled people do not currently participate in the workforce. “It’s a huge loss, both to them and to the economy,” he says. “People with disabilities really do have skills that can contribute to the bottom line. They can do work that increases profit margins.”

By putting her star employees front and center, Schwartz hopes to prove this to the wider public. “I think that once people get to know them as people, the other stuff will follow. You won’t have these barriers to hiring or barriers to working with them,” she says.

Reenat Sinay is a Boston-based freelance journalist and part-time correspondent for the Boston Globe.

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