Auckland café serves up on-the-job training for people with an intellectual disability

Source: 1 NEWS

Tom Russell says he loves coming to work at Te Tuhi Café in Auckland's Pakuranga.

Te Tuhi’s Cherry Tawhai and Hiraani Himona, support staff Emily Searle, trainee Rachel Martin, café manager Jimmy Zhao, and trainee Tom Russell at Te Tuhi Café in Auckland, Pakuranga.

"I’ve been doing the cash register in the till out the front here and making customers happy. I also did the cheese scones this morning,” he told 1 NEWS.

The café is like any other, offering everything from scones, coffee, tea and pastries.

But it's also serving up employment opportunities for seven people with an intellectual disability to train in hospitality.

The non-profit enterprise, believed to be the first of its kind in New Zealand, opened to the public in July.

Te Tuhi Café trainee Tom Russell.

Russell has been training at the café since May after losing his supported employment of five years refurbishing Air New Zealand headphones at Altus Enterprises .

“I lost my first job back in March because of Covid, and I was devastated,” Russell said.

“I was hoping there’d be another opportunity in the community for people with disabilities like me.”

He said one of the best parts of the job at the café was the people he got to work with. 

While Russell manned the till when 1 NEWS paid the café a visit, fellow trainee Rachel Martin was at the coffee machine.

“My favourite thing is doing the dishes,” she said.

“And then I make food. I love working here, I love it so much.”

Te Tuhi Café trainee Rachel Martin.

The idea was five years in the making for Hiraani Himona, the executive director at art gallery and community centre Te Tuhi.

Himona modelled the establishment after seeing the success of disability training cafés in the UK, where she’d worked as South London Gallery’s deputy director. 

But, it wasn’t until she found partners in Rescare, which provides support services for people with an intellectual disability, and the University of Auckland that the idea became a reality. 

“In theory, they’re gaining hospitality skills they can use in unsupported environments, and we’re demonstrating that they’re capable and useful employees,” she said.

“In practice, I don’t ever want any one of them to leave us.”

Himona said their long-term goal was to make the café financially sustainable so it could help as many people as possible.

“We’re losing money, Rescare is putting money in, and the University of Auckland is putting in a lot of staff time,” she said.

“The combined contributions of all of us is what makes this viable. We do want to become a fully sustainable social enterprise.”

While they expected it would “take some time” to reach that goal, Te Tuhi centre administrator Cherry Tawhai said there was already interest from others in the disability sector.

Tawhai said she wanted to see more training cafés open in New Zealand because Te Tuhi could only employ so many trainees at any one time. 

"So, in the future, you could see this as a model that could be picked up and taken somewhere else."

She added: “I think that’s the key message, that they’re not different. They’re a little bit different, but they’re not people that can’t do things.”

‘It’s about trying to provide a pathway’

Dr Katrina Jane Phillips, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland, and her students are part of the team in charge of designing the training programme for the employees at the café. 

The programme teaches hospitality skills, such as handling money and preparing food, and work-related skills, like understanding different people's roles in a café. 

One of the baked treats offered at Te Tuhi Café.

Trainees work through the modules of the programme at their own pace, in an order that reflects what they’re interested in.

She said the team wanted to create a manual that any hospitality business could use to train someone with an intellectual disability, even if they hadn’t done so before.

“It’s about trying to provide a pathway for people who have an interest in food and to allow them to have that goal in the same way as anyone else leaving school.”

Stats NZ data from the June 2019 quarter found the employment rate for people with a disability was 23.4 per cent, compared with 69.9 per cent for people without. 

“I’ve worked for special needs schools and in disability services … what I know is there are a lot of resources put into kids, when they're at school, in terms of language therapy and behaviour support,” Phillips said.

“When a child with a disability turns 21, that level of support can be highly variable in terms of what carries on. 

“Even if someone has a real desire to want to learn, the avenues for which they can learn are often out of reach. 

“It’s either because financially they're unattainable, or because academically it’s a pen-and-paper process as opposed to a practical learning process, which doesn’t suit everybody.”

She said the benefit was two-way, and the same could be said for businesses who employ people with a disability.

“We often talk about the idea of ako , the idea of learning from each other. 

“This is very much an example of that. My students are teaching the trainees what they need to be doing, but, at the same time, my students are getting invaluable experience.”

People were also coming to visit Te Tuhi’s galleries for the first time because they’d heard of the café, she said.

“We really want to be able to show that the model doesn’t cost the organisation. It brings value.”

Te Tuhi Café trainee Rachel Martin from inside the kitchen.

Suzanne Jones, a vocational service manager for Rescare who helped the trainees find employment at the café, said some of that value comes from how flexible people with an intellectual disability are. 

For example, some of the people Rescare support were happy to work only a few hours in a day, or help out during a café’s “rush hour”, Jones said.

“[It’s] just being open-minded to that.”

She said the opportunity at Te Tuhi was unique because it made the trainees feel like they had a place in the community. 

“It’s not just a disability training café, but it’s for them to work within the community and other staff alongside them as well,” Jones said.

“It’s really important because there are some very, very low statistics on employment for people with a disability, and people with intellectual disabilities have even poorer stats.

“I think we're at the stage in the café where people have absolutely shown they bring value to organisations and businesses."