The cafe opening inside Lexus of Naperville is certainly a nice amenity for customers looking for specialty coffees, teas or a smoothie. But for the eatery's employees, it's a potential lifeline.
The Chicago-area dealership's Made to Inspire Cafe will be run and staffed by workers who have autism and who have been trained by a local private school dedicated to their needs.
The project was the brainchild of the dealership's general manager, Randy Wolf. Nearly a decade ago, Wolf and his wife, who have a teenage son with autism, started the Turning Pointe Autism Foundation to help support other parents like them. Since 2011, the foundation has operated a day school for children with autism.
But as the first students of the school approached graduation, Wolf and the instructors began to ponder what lay ahead for them: Traditional colleges were not an option for most, and employment opportunities were bleak.
"Ninety percent of individuals with autism are unemployed or underemployed," said Wolf. "Fifty-six percent of young adults with autism only graduate high school and only 14 percent start college."
So Turning Pointe started a career college that works with businesses to place students in jobs where they can succeed. The college trains the students for the specific tasks and provides support along the way.
"A lot of our kids, they can't get through an interview process," said Wolf. "They have a difficult time communicating, with eye contact." But once they're placed, he said, they're terrific employees.
With the recent overhaul of his Lexus dealership, Wolf saw an opportunity to create a placement opportunity, right in his store. And so the Made to Inspire Cafe was born.
"When we were redoing our Lexus store, we came across the idea that a cafe would be a perfect position for some of our young adults to work," said Wolf. "Basically, I'm leasing the space to the foundation, and they've got to be self-sustaining. They've got to run it on their own. They've got to learn how to order supplies, and stock the supplies, and sanitize the sinks and account for the dollars."
Employees who are high-functioning will take management roles, while others will be baristas. The cafe will start slowly, with limited hours.
The goal is to gear up to five days a week with six to eight workers and to cater to community and dealership customers.
Wolf is confident in the career college grads, since about 20 people with special needs already work throughout the Dan Wolf Automotive Group in its Toyota, Lexus and Chevrolet dealerships. The students are often involved with office work but also engage with customers.
"We had a non-verbal individual greet customers where he would communicate with his iPad, and people loved it," said Wolf. "It's pretty special to see. It's a win-win-win because you're employing an individual that is able. When the public sees that, they want to do business with us."
Ketra Kuniej, director of the Turning Pointe Career College, said the students bloom once they are out and working on their own. Their attitude is not "that I have to go to work, but that I get to go to work," Kuniej said.
Wolf said building the cafe was more work than he expected, since it required permits, just like a restaurant. But he says it's worth it.
"People are asking when the cafe is going to open," he said. "The buzz is out there. People are excited."