By Jay Cook
MIDDLETOWN – The pride of starting a new job is something almost everyone experiences during their lifetime. Cashing the first paycheck and growing through a company is rewarding.
But not everyone gets that opportunity. It’s especially true for people with intellectual disabilities who have trouble breaking through societal barriers to land a job.
Lincroft residents Mark and Stephanie Cartier were watching that unfold for their youngest child, Katie, a 19- year-old who was born with Down syndrome. Katie Cartier graduated from Middletown High School South in 2017 and is headed to George Mason University’s Mason Learning Into Future Environments (LIFE) program in the fall. When high school ended there was a void in her life. As an intellectually disabled young adult, finding her first job wasn’t easy.
“We were thinking, OK, she’s 19. We have two more years,” before she turns 21, Stephanie said Monday evening. “Where is she going to work? What’s going to happen to her and all her friends? Nobody ever hires our kids and they’re considered to be the best, most loyal workers. But still, nobody hires them.”
The Cartiers hope to ease the school-to-work transition for people like Katie by starting their own 501(c)(3) non- profit organization. Their vision is to create a restaurant offering steady, minimum wage jobs and specialized training in the food service industry to intellectually disabled adults struggling to find work.
And they’ll have space to do it. Over the next few months, the Cartiers will be transforming Rigoletto’s Trattoria, a shuttered Italian restaurant at 418 Route 35 in Middletown, into No Limits Café, a lunchtime restaurant serving easy-to-make, trendy dishes. They hope to open in early 2019.
Other than a full-time chef and manager, the café will be entirely staffed by 20 to 25 cognitively diverse workers. Eventually, No Limits Café will be a training ground for future job placement in the restaurant industry. Evening workshops will include further training in hopes of helping the young adults land full-time jobs at area restaurants.
“For any parent of a child with intellectual disabilities, as the child ages they ask themselves two questions,” Mark noted. “Where will my child live and where will my child work? The work piece is one that we’re able to solve.”
Earlier this week, the Cartiers officially launched No Limits Café’s online presence with social media pages and a website. All five members of the family chipped in during the preliminary stages, but Katie played the most important role: She came up with a unique name.
Her favorite television show, “Born This Way,” and the senior quote in her yearbook inspired it.
“Don’t limit me,” Katie said.
PERFECTING THEIR RECIPE
The Cartiers know what it’s like working alongside cognitively diverse children, adults and their families. For eight years, Stephanie was the co-chairperson for the Middletown Friends of Different Learners parent advisory group. Mark, the managing director for a securities trading company, has spent the past 14 years volunteering and coordinating with RallyCap Sports, another nonprofit offering recreational sports programs to people with special needs.
“Right now, this is a good time,” Stephanie said. “Our kids are older, we had help and why not us? We’re no different or special than anyone else.”
Since April 2017, they have traveled around the country visiting restaurants, diners and ice cream shops modeled in similar fashion – offering employment to this underserved population. The statistics, they noted, are staggering.
The most impactful visit, Stephanie said, was when she and Mark traveled to Hugs Café in McKinney, Texas after seeing it highlighted on a national news broadcast. They met with the founder, Ruth Thompson, picked her brain and even threw a few aprons on and worked a shift in the kitchen.
Just like a good chef, the couple mixed in different ingredients for success from around the country to craft their own unique flavor. They took inspiration primarily from locations in the southwest and along the East Coast.
FINDING A HOME
With a vision and plan in mind, the toughest part was finding a brick-and-mortar location for the restaurant, Mark noted. They initially looked in Red Bank but couldn’t find the right piece of real estate. That’s when Rigoletto’s came on the market.
The Rigoletto’s kitchen is a far cry from some commercial kitchens with small spaces for cooking and prep work. The vast cooking space was a main selling point. It will give No Limits Café the space to rework the back of house into a fully ADA-compliant kitchen facility.
“This has a space that’s going to allow us to employ anyone and train anyone,” Mark said. “No pun intended, there’s no limits back there.”
And the Cartiers have had no shortage of help. Although their parking lot is limited to only 14 spaces, Stephanie said she’s received permission from their neighbor, Thornberry’s Appliance, to use their parking lot. An electrician tasked with rewiring the restaurant up to code has agreed to do the work pro bono. They’ve even received a helping hand from local restaurateur Tim McLoone on how to shape their restaurant for success.
“Why do this?” Mark questioned. “When you start seeing all of this good come from various places, you have to say, ‘How can we not?’ ”
Their own children have also pitched in. Their oldest son, 24-year-old Mark Cartier, helped build the website and took all of the online photography. He works at an advertising agency based in Red Bank. The same goes for 22-year-old Ryan Cartier, who is studying special education at the College of Charleston. He found research and statistics used on the website.
“I think we always had it in our minds that one day it would happen,” Mark, the son, said about opening No Limits Café. “We don’t feel like we have to be involved in it; we both want to be involved in it.”
Mark and Stephanie, co-founders of the nonprofit, said there is a long road ahead. Fundraising will soon kick off for a major renovation to the restaurant. They’ll have to sift through paperwork and code enforcement before the doors open.
But when it does, they hope the greater Middletown community recognizes the importance of their café.
“People with intellectual disabilities want the same things as you and I want. They’re more alike than different,” said Stephanie. “They want to earn a living, they want to be happy in a job, they want to be useful.”
For more information about the restaurant, visit nolimitscafe.org.
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