It’s breakfast time at Sam’s Canterbury Café and the neighborhood haunt is buzzing. Sam Myers, the café’s 25-year-old namesake, sits at a small table near the front door, wrapping silverware in napkins. His father, Michael Myers, the café’s co-owner, eats eggs and toast at a nearby table.
“I’d never been in the restaurant business — or wanted to be,” says Michael Myers, grandson of Israel Myers, the originator of the London Fog raincoat line. “But we have an adult son [Sam] with autism and from the time he was in his late teens, my wife said we needed to think about Sam having as full and independent a life as possible. Adults work, and we wanted Sam to have a good place to work.”
One way of ensuring that outcome, says Michael Myers, who runs ML3, a family investment office in Pikesville, was for he and his wife, Jennifer, a preschool teacher, to start a business where their son could be employed.
That business turned out to be the café, a casual eatery in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood that opened in February 2016 in the Ambassador apartment building.
Sam’s serves coffee and baked goods, breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch. Besides Sam Myers, the café employs five adults with autism and eight other adults. The café’s mission is to serve tasty food and drinks, while providing meaningful employment and a road toward greater independence for adults with autism.
The adults with autism who work at Sam’s are clients of Itineris, a Baltimore-based vocational training program for adults on the autism spectrum. Ami Taubenfeld, Itineris’ executive director, says she is thrilled that Itineris clients, including her own daughter, are employed through Sam’s.
“The [Myerses] are super special people, incredibly generous,” says Taubenfeld. “I love the whole mission — inclusion in the community and bringing young adults with autism into a warm and engaging place. Imagine, creating a business from nothing with Sam and his desires and interests in mind. And of course, incorporating other Itineris clients is like the cherry on the top!”
In addition to receiving training from Itineris’ job coaches, Sam’s staff members are managed by Eleese Taylor.
“We built this from the ground up,” says Taylor, 27, who acknowledges that most restaurants are not “autism-friendly. They are high-stress, loud, busy environments and we have to keep things low-key.”
The stakes are high in the restaurant business, says Taylor, since “we are dealing with people’s health.” Employees must be meticulous about hand washing and keeping the environment clean.
“There’s a tremendous upside in hiring adults with autism, but it’s hard to tap,” says Michael Myers. “It takes a long time to learn and get comfortable. When he first started, Sam’s shift was [only] 15 minutes long.”
Now, Sam Myers works 2½ hours a day, four days a week. When he’s not at the café, Sam is usually at Itineris. Though he was resistant to his job at first, these days he enjoys working at “his café.” Sam aspires to be the café’s cashier but while he’s in training for that job, his responsibilities include stock work, cleaning and clearing tables.
He also likes to greet visitors. “Sam’s birthday was Sept. 1, so we did a big promotion,” says his father. “We said, ‘Make sure to stop by and say hi today and we’ll have free cake pops and coffee!’ It’s so rewarding seeing Sam happy to go to work!”
Taubenfeld says that people in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood “have embraced the café. I’ve talked to some of them and they say one of the things they enjoy is seeing Sam and having him greet them.”
Since beginning her job a year ago, Taylor says she has seen steady progress in the café’s employees. For instance, during the next few weeks, one employee with autism will be transitioning to being a prep cook.
“He has learned knife handling, and can break down a whole chicken,” Taylor says. “Most of his challenges are social, so he has worked almost exclusively downstairs away from the public. But now, we’ll get him used to being upstairs with customers.”
Says Taubenfeld: “It’s been incredible to watch the clients grow and develop, to wear their uniforms with such pride.”
Michael Myers says he wants his autistic employees “to be accepted for who they are and to be part of the community, but we also don’t want to make such a big deal about the fact that our employees are autistic.”
“I’m happy if someone knows our mission, but I’d rather someone patronize us because we’re a neighborhood place that’s friendly, with good food and coffee,” he says. “I like to say this is not a place for special needs people to work, it’s a special place that happens to have adults with special needs working.”
For information about Sam’s Canterbury Café, visit samscanterburycafe.com.