How Michigan’s Soul Cafe creates pathways to restaurant careers for people with disabilities

Soul Cafe, in Michigan, trains and employs people with disabilities. Photo credit: Soul Cafe.

Soul Cafe in West Bloomfield, Michigan began with desperation: “The desperation that people have for others to see them for who they really are and not for their labels that either get attached to them or we attach to ourselves,” Bassie Shemtov says. In 2016, she and her husband, Levi, founded Soul Cafe, a breakfast and lunch spot that trains and employs people with disabilities. But it is only one part of the Shemtovs’ work. 

In 1994, they started Friendship Circle, pairing eight teenagers with eight children with disabilities to give their parents a break and offer companionship. The number of teenagers offering to volunteer grew over the years while the individuals with disabilities grew up and found few employment opportunities. Shemtov found them often at home, sitting in their bedrooms with little to do. “We thought, this is not really healthy or fair to them because nobody wants to hire them,” she says.

So they built the Soul Center, which includes the Soul Studio, a space where adults with disabilities can explore art, including painting and ceramics, and the Soul Cafe. At the cafe, they learn tasks such as greeting guests and prepping ingredients for dishes like shakshuka and blackened salmon sliders. 

And a little over a year ago, the Friendship Circle purchased Dakota Bread Company, in part because not everyone was meant for the cafe’s fast pace and customer interactions. “Dakota Bread fits in perfectly for those who might need a little bit more of a consistent, repetitive style, rather than being in the front of the house and needing to communicate more often with others,” Shemtov says. 

A group of people preparing bread at Soul Cafe

The cafe also includes a bakery, the Dakota Bread Company, for other work opportunities. Photo credit: Soul Cafe.

There’s a right job and right environment for each individual, Shemtov believes. “Because I hate when people say ‘oh, they could just do this,’” she says. “Wait, what if they don’t want to or what if they’re not good at it? Every person has something they’re going to thrive in and we should not be shoving one thing for everybody.” Hence the art studio, cafe, and bakery.

Between Soul Cafe and Dakota Bread, 26 individuals are currently trainees. Some, after completing the training, join Soul Cafe and Dakota Bread as staff, from baristas to bussers—almost 20 of the current staff were once trainees. 

Sean Ropp started at Soul Cafe as a trainee five years ago, learning how to clean a table, food prep, and other life skills. When he graduated the program, he stayed to become Soul Cafe’s main busser, and eventually became a trainer himself. “Soul Cafe feels more like a family to me than other places I’ve worked at,” Ropp, who was diagnosed with a rare congenital disorder (ACC) that affects short-term memory, says. “I would sometimes forget where things went but my coworkers are always happy to help me.” The work challenges him, he says. “It’s daunting, but very rewarding in the end. It feels nice to be depended on.”

Martha Cheng is a writer based in Honolulu. Find her on Instagram.

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