SCHENECTADY — You could say that Sara Mae Hickey has always taken the long view of her younger sister’s autism. But really, she’s also taken the wide view, concerning herself not just with how her sister will get on later in life, but with how everybody affected by autism will get on.
It’s how she came up with Puzzles Bakery & Cafe, set to open in downtown Schenectady this summer. The fast-casual sandwich and coffee shop will feature something you don’t see every day: a staff largely comprised of individuals with developmental disabilities.
“Autism affects one in every 68 people in this country,” said Hickey. “So for me, I’ve always seen the bigger picture. And what’s really scary is that transition to adulthood. Employment is usually very, very rare. Finding housing is very, very difficult. And usually, the burden does fall on the family.”
So Puzzles will solve one of those problems — the employment difficulties. It’s not that places won’t hire individuals with developmental disabilities. There are incentives provided by the state that cover wages for training periods and so on. But Hickey thinks there’s still a lot of hesitancy on the part of employers, perhaps because of the flexibility that may be needed to hire and keep on such individuals. So she’s going to do just that — open a business that’s not just flexible, but eager to hire those with special needs.
Puzzles will be more than just a restaurant, providing goods and services to the community. And it will be more than just an employment opportunity for individuals with special needs. It will be an integrated workplace for individuals with and without special needs, working alongside each other in a setting that will increase the community’s interaction with a portion of the population that’s still stigmatized, marginalized or hidden away.
“A lot of people with disabilities make wonderful employees because they’re so enthusiastic about coming to work every day,” said Hickey. “Some people with autism are very excited to complete repetitive tasks, like making coffee or delivering food. There are some circumstances where a special needs person may excel over a non-disabled employee. But I think a lot of employers just aren’t willing to think about it that way.”
The cafe will occupy the first floor of 515 State St., a tan brick building up the road from Proctors at the corner of Barrett Street. The menu will include hot and cold sandwiches, soups, salads, and hot and cold beverages. It will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday to accommodate the Schenectady Greenmarket crowd that fills downtown.
There will be an outdoor patio and a community room on the first floor that will host family movie nights, open mics, adaptive yoga, therapy dog sessions, birthday parties and more for families and community members dealing with disabilities.
Hickey’s father, Dan, bought the building last summer with plans to renovate the first floor into retail space and the top two floors into apartments. The Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority provided a $50,000 matching facade grant for the project.
Hickey’s sister, Emily, has been influencing her family for the better as far back as she can remember as they were growing up in Rotterdam. Sara Mae is now 23 with a degree from Skidmore College and a nonprofit management certificate from SUNY Purchase. Emily is 21, mostly nonverbal, and on the lower functioning end of the autism spectrum, according to her sister. She ages out of the public school system this June and will begin an adult program through the local ARC.
“She’s such a sweetheart and a really big inspiration to me,” said Hickey.
Emily also inspired her parents, who became the president and vice president of the Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region. After years of seeing and interacting with families in similar situations, Hickey decided to launch her own nonprofit called The Autism Initiative, whose mission is to offer employment opportunities for disabled individuals, promote an attitude of acceptance and understanding of disabilities, and provide a welcoming space, enriching programs, activities, support group meetings and workshops to take place.
Once the Schenectady location gets going, Hickey hopes to open several more Puzzles locations around the Capital Region. The hiring process begins soon. The plan is to hire about 25 part-time employees for the Schenectady cafe.
“Some individuals with special needs may only be capable of working eight to 10 hours a week,” she said. “And if that works for them, then that works for us. What breaks my heart is we can’t hire everyone. I know there are so many people out there who are struggling to find employment opportunities, and that’s why it’s definitely my goal to scale this and open more cafes down the road.”
At least once a day, Hickey hears from someone — via email or phone or Facebook — who loves her cafe plans and knows a potential employee who would benefit.
“They always add, ‘By the way, this would be so great for my daughter or my loved one with special needs,’ ” she said. “It’s been wonderful to hear. There was never any doubt in my mind when I decided to do this that there would be a market.”
Originally, it was her goal to open by April 2, World Autism Awareness Day. But this winter the Hickeys had a series of setbacks. The day before the Super Bowl someone broke into the building and stole thousands of dollars worth of tools that had been locked inside, damaging a wall and benches in the process. Some minor aspects of construction, like caulking, were difficult to complete in this winter’s frigid weather. And then a snowplow hit the back of the building, causing damage that required sizeable repairs.
They’re back on track now, though, she said, with plans to host a soft opening sometime in mid-June.
“Every single person who walks into the cafe will see people working who have disabilities and special needs,” she said. “So, yeah, we’re doing a good thing by providing this income source, but we’re also giving them a chance to be a part of the community and show people who they are. It provides more exposure for people with disabilities and hopefully we’ll foster more compassion in our communities.”