Ada's Cafe in Palo Alto, like many local food businesses, is barely treading water amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales are down 80% at the Mitchell Park Community Center cafe. The staff of 50 has been cut to just six people.
But Ada's is not a typical cafe. It's a nonprofit that trains and employs people with developmental disabilities, giving them space to both work and belong. The pandemic has turned that mission and the business itself upside down: Owner Kathleen Foley-Hughes announced on Friday that the cafe will close temporarily until the new stay-at-home order is lifted in January.
"The goal of Ada's is to create meaningful connections between the community and our employees. Right now that is a real struggle with sales down as much as they have been and real concerns about COVID-19 and the impact that would have on any of our employees, especially our mission-based employees," she wrote in an email. "We can't afford to keep losing significant money, wasting resources and potentially getting someone sick."
Firoozeh Dumas, a Palo Alto resident, has launched an online auction to support Ada's with a fundraising goal of $250,000. Dumas, whose children went to elementary school with Foley-Hughes', said she was motivated in part as a native of Iran who always admired the U.S. for being more accepting of people with disabilities.
"I'm really saddened a place like Silicon Valley cannot sustain a business like Ada's. What does that say about us if we let a business like this not survive?" Dumas said. "I know every business is suffering but if you look at the employees at this place, they are the most marginalized."
Foley-Hughes, whose son Charlie has a developmental disability, opened Ada's in 2014. The majority of Ada's 50 employees have diagnoses including Down syndrome, traumatic brain injuries, autism spectrum disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder from war and incarceration and mental illness. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10 times the average of a local area. Hughes has also hired refugees from Syria and El Salvador.
The nonprofit also conducts research on how to improve workplaces for people with disabilities and on hiring, training and empowering people with disabilities in the commercial food service industry.
During the lockdown, Ada's pivoted to offering to-go meals out of a Mountain View commercial kitchen. Employees who felt comfortable coming into work made jam to sell, plus cookies and corporate baskets. Foley-Hughes organized Zoom meetups and virtual cooking classes to keep her staff as connected as possible under the circumstances.
"They really benefit from being at work for the social aspects of it (and) the constant repetition and teaching that goes on all day long when they're at work. Many of them are just really lonely" during the lockdown, she said.
"The employees that have been working are absolutely extraordinary," she added. "If you can imagine what it might be like to have a processing disability and add to that the need for a plexiglass wall, a screen, masks on the customer and then masks on the employee — it makes communication and engagement really tough."
The Palo Alto cafe reopened in October for takeout and outdoor dining, but foot traffic has been slow. On a normal weekday pre-pandemic, the cafe would see about $1,200 in sales, Foley-Hughes said, and even then the business wasn't breaking even due to high labor costs and training. That's plummeted to about $200 in daily sales.
"We are losing less money by being closed given the food cost, daily food waste and, again, labor costs," Foley-Hughes said.
Rent at the commercial kitchen is also costly. Once that lease is up at the end of May, Ada's will start using the kitchen at the Mitchell Park Community Center in the mornings through an agreement with the city of Palo Alto. This means Ada's will no longer offer catering and the cafe menu will be smaller, but downsizing will help the business survive, Foley-Hughes said.
Ada's is still offering takeout meals out of the Mountain View kitchen and holiday gifts, revenue from which is helping to keep the six remaining staff members employed.
"We're in it to maintain it and to get to the other side of this," Foley-Hughes said. "We plan to be here in 2021 and beyond."
The online auction includes items such as lunch prepared and hosted by Ada's employees, antique art, signed books, a weekend at the Squaw Valley Lodge and opportunities to meet (in person or virtually) movie director Jessica Yu and well-known authors. People can also donate directly to Ada's or purchase gift cards.
Dumas is auctioning her grandmother's antique Persian silver set "in honor of all the people who are forced to live in the shadows." In the item description, she recounts a childhood memory: She was with her family at the home of a fortune teller in Iran when a young boy burst into the room. The fortune teller, "apologetic and ashamed," quickly took him out of the room.
"I hope that someday, there will be Ada's Cafes all over the world, where everyone has a chance to a part of something, to give back to their community, and to feel like they belong in the living room with the rest of us," she wrote.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.