The benefits and challenges of workers with special needs Michael Sakas/CPR
Tony Saponaro, brewery tour guide.

The benefits and challenges of workers with special needs

This Colorado restaurateur is tapping a willing and loyal talent pool

More restaurants are hiring individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, also called IDD, some out of compassion or compliance, others because of federal funding available, and others still to solve the challenge of finding willing and loyal employees in a competitive hiring landscape.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals with disabilities are unemployed at more than twice the rate of those with no disability.

While some operators are just dipping their toes into this deeper talent pool, Tiffany Fixter has built her entire business model around it.

Fixter, a trained special education teacher with particular expertise in autism, is the founder of Brewability Lab, a brew house and bar in Denver that is staffed entirely by individuals with IDD.

The two-year-old brewery has been so successful that this fall Fixter will open a second concept to be called Pizzability, a fast-casual, build-your-own pizza restaurant that will employ about 30 individuals with IDD.

Edmond Sierens

Tony Tanner Schneller, commercially trained brewer and head brewer at Brewability.

Fixter shared her inspiration for opening these concepts and the benefits and challenges of recruiting, hiring and training employees with special needs: 

What inspired you to create these concepts?

I started the brewery because I worked at an adult day program [for individuals with disabilities]. They were really excluded from the community in these programs. [Brewability] is not only giving them a purpose, but providing that social interaction with our community. I have all these people who need jobs. They shouldn’t be hidden in garages. We’re celebrating the fact that these adults are able to make beer and be your bartender. 

Never having owned a concept serving food, what inspired you to open a pizzeria?

The brewery was starting to make a profit. … I wanted to break the stigmas. Food is a big one. It’s going to be a challenge. The first challenge is the public. There’s a perception that people with disabilities aren’t that clean. 

How do you combat that perception?

We’re doing the ServSafe program with them, modifying it to their needs … using EcoLab sanitation systems, auto handwashers. 

What other accommodations do you make for your staff?

It’s a visual menu that also has braille. Adaptive silverware. Doing magnetic buttons on uniforms that increase independence. Color-coded beer taps … [At Pizzability] we’re doing working interviews. We have teams of occupational therapists and teachers who volunteer to help take people through the training. [For guests with IDD] there will be noise-cancelling headphones, wiggle stools, fidget spinners, adaptive spoons, forks, bowls, plates and cups. A sensory wall. 

Are there additional costs to these accommodations?

It doesn’t actually cost that much more.  I think it’s worth it. 

Colin Bridge

Brewability Lab founder Tiffany Fixter, far right, with some of her staff.

How do you recruit these employees?

I go through different agencies and community-center boards. There are agencies in each state that need to place individuals with disabilities. Parents also approach me … word of mouth. They have to want to work. They need to be able to match pictures to objects, as the menu is picture-based. 

Do you ever hire people without disabilities?

The brewery has a tap manager that is neurotypical. At Pizzability we have a chef who is neurotypical. But I think everybody has strengths and weaknesses. You figure out what motivates people and then cater to them. This is why Brewability works, that’s why Pizzability will too. 

Last April, Senate Democrats called on the Department of Labor to act against employers paying people with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. What are your thoughts on paying lower wages to employees with disabilities?

I don’t support that [practice]. People assume everybody is like that. We pay Colorado state tipped [employee] minimum wage, plus tips. We do an all-staff tip share.

Do you receive any federal or state funds to offset your unique operational costs?

We receive city money from the Mill Levy fund [through Rocky Mountain Human Services] that is earmarked for job opportunities benefiting individuals with disabilities.  We’re using the funds to cover supplies, adaptations for staff and customers with disabilities. 

What advice do you have for restaurant operators interested in employing this population?

You have to go into it with the right heart, the right purpose. If you’re in it for the money, just don’t do it. It might take a little extra training, but you’re going to get a loyal, dedicated employee. Your turnover will be lower. Know what supports are needed. We do need to be conscious about hours so they don’t lose their social security or medical insurance. It’s important to be upfront with families about hours, provide very consistent schedules. 

What does success look like for your concepts?

My hope is that we’re self-sustaining. I don’t want to be a charity. They’re working like everyone else.

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