“Jack’s and Steamers, a Neighborhood Restaurant Giving People with Disabilities the chance They Deserve” by Samantha Meddaugh

Have you ever walked into a restaurant and immediately felt welcomed and right at home? For me, Jack’s and Steamers in Arvada, Colorado is exactly that. When I walk in after being gone for over three years, the aromas of coffee and home-style cooking happily lead me by the nose, bringing back memories of when I worked there as a blind baker from 2014-2016.

It’s a bright blue day outside, or so I’m told, when I return to Jack’s Bar & Grill and Steamers Coffeehouse. The front door is still a heavy pull; I always struggled with that thing. With my white cane guiding me, I make my way to the coffee bar and ask the barista for Athan Miller, the owner. While I wait for her, my fingertips spider-crawl around the coffee bar counter to where the baked goods are displayed on decorative glass plates. My hand roams from stack to stack, feeling the plastic-wrapped shapes of over-sized chocolate chip cookies and heart-shaped oatmeal cookies, soft brownies and  brick-style Rice Krispy treats, giant muffins and scones. The tactile sensations spark my memories of making each one. A smile stretches across my lips.

Athan– pronounced with a long A like in the name “Nathan” –greets me with a monstrous hug, then takes me on a brief walk through the restaurant and up two flights of stairs to the loft that sits quiet and empty until the dinner rush.

It’s tricky enough for me as a blind person to climb the flights of stairs with just my cane, but for servers to hike up and down them with trays loaded with plates of food … well, I do not envy them one bit. Athan and I take a seat at a high-top table. As I get situated, we small-talk about life.

Athan Miller used to be a social worker. After some years, she grew tired of sitting at a desk and pushing paper, but wasn’t sure what else she wanted to do or how to get started. One day her husband Jack, who was a Realtor at the time, came home and suggested that she buy a small coffee shop that was for sale. For a while, she considered it. Then she approached her boss at Parker Personal Care Homes, Scott Parker, and took a leap of faith.

A girl stands at one end of a long counter gazing out the window. Behind the counter, we see another employee, a refrigerator, espresso machine, lots of cups and a register. In the distance, customers sit and enjoy coffee.
“Scott, I want to stop working for you and work with you,” she told him. “Why don’t we work
together and buy a coffee shop and employ adults with disabilities and see what happens?” He was all-in.

“But why a coffee shop?” I ask her.

Athan felt she could wrap her head around running a small neighborhood fixture like that. At the time, a full restaurant seemed too much.

In 2006, Steamers Coffeehouse opened up in a 300-square-foot space in the Five Parks neighborhood in Arvada, Colorado. The shop opened with six employees, three of whom had developmental disabilities. Within six months, the commercial space next door became vacant. It was 900 square feet and had a kitchen, the perfect area to make sandwiches, soups and paninis – typical coffee shop food.

The larger space allowed Athan to hire more employees, including  nine with developmental disabilities. The neighborhood around Steamers was accepting and supportive of her mission. Business was booming.

Elsa Lombardi was hired as one of the original three developmentally disabled employees. Now, thirteen years later, she still works at Jacks and Steamers. Elsa works four hours a day, five days a week, and does a little bit of everything, from making coffee to clearing tables to wiping down the menus. Her favorite thing to do?

“Oh, the coffee. I love to make the coffee,” she says with a laugh. Espresso, straight up, is her favorite drink. I can tell Elsa is smiling when she talks to me; her happiness radiates through her laughter.

“Why do you like working at Jacks and Steamers?” I ask her.

“Because they are nice to me here,” Elsa says. “Athan and Jack and everyone.”

Elsa, with a big smile, is pumping coffee into a Jack’s coffee cup. She wears an Italian flag-striped pizza apron.

Chatter from the patrons and staff has mellowed. It’s after the breakfast rush for coffee and before the busy crowds for lunch. The loft, where I’m sitting, was originally a separate space owned by someone else. But when it became vacant a couple of years after the restaurant opened, Athan purchased it and had a staircase installed to connect the two. In 2009, Steamers Coffeehouse expanded to 2,000 square feet, its current size. Jack’s Bar & Grill was also added.

Jack’s and Steamers is leaps and bounds past the 300-square-foot space where they started. Athan describes this growth with the analogy of a person stepping into the shallow end of a pool and slowly wading into the deep end. It has not been the easiest of adventures, but what motivates Athan every day is the challenge of finding a happy medium between change and familiarity.

“Once you become complacent or stagnant,” she says, “there is no longer a challenge and it becomes boring.”

I ask Athan how she decides on the menu. “Customers like authentic homemade food. For the entrees, our chef and I kick around ideas, and by making and taste-testing them , we’ve been able to come up with our staple entrees and our specials,” Athan says. “As far as the baked goods go, you have to follow what sells and what doesn’t.”

Some of the most popular items at Jack’s and Steamers include the breakfast burritos, the French dip sandwich, fish ’n’ chips, sliders and full burgers, and ice cream from Liks. (The chicken cordon bleu sliders are my personal favorite.)

Health-conscious items are also available. “We have fried pickles and hummus, but fried pickles are far better sellers,” Athan quips.

To Athan, taste will always make a customer a returning one. “People will typically come back to a place if the food tastes good but the service is terrible. People will not typically come back if the service is good and the food tastes terrible.”

As far as smell goes, “You have to be really careful,” she cautions. “You don’t want to boil up some broccoli and stink up the whole restaurant with a stinky-feet smell, but you do want the smell of cinnamon rolls or bacon.” She talks about how some businesses have “free smells” that are pumped into the outside air to draw in customers. “Smells are tricky,” she adds. “If customers smelled everything that was cooking, they would be overwhelmed.”

Across the street is Jack’s prep kitchen. Athan bought the space in 2013 when the restaurant kitchen was becoming overcrowded with staff trying to fulfill their responsibilities all at once. In the prep kitchen, you will find more employees who are developmentally disabled. They, along with job coaches Scott Leyba and Michele Maphis, create homemade sauces and dressings, chop vegetables for salads and entrees, cut potatoes for homestyle breakfast and French fries, make and jar the homemade jams. They also take turns helping Suzanna, the head baker, with pies and baked goods.

An extreme closeup of cherry and blueberry pies with latticed crusts.

My first job as a blind person was as an assistant baker here. I had years of personal baking experience, but learning the ropes of a commercial kitchen was daunting. With support and guidance from Athan and the head baker at the time, I was able to transition and feel right at home.

In the patio area outside the prep kitchen, I sit with Tyler Anderson, the program manager who oversees the employees who are developmentally disabled. I can hear car traffic on the street in front of us picking up as the morning gets later. Tyler started at the restaurant as a server in 2016 and was promoted to manager three years later. Some people might find whatever job however they can, but others are motivated by a reason.

After moving to Colorado from Florida, he found out about the restaurant hiring adults with disabilities and applied for a job. “Having ADHD and a reading and writing disability, I felt I could thrive by working at Jack’s and Steamers,” he says.

Here he is also able to recognize and help with struggles employees with developmental disabilities face while at work.

“One thing that I hope that customers take away from coming here is that it’s a special place,” Tyler says. “Not a lot of businesses implement space for disabled people to work. I would like for customers to know that they are supporting a mom and pop that really care about their community because everybody deserves to have fulfillment in their lives. We are providing that here where normally they wouldn’t get that chance.”

Three employees of Jack’s and Steamers pose and smile in the commercial kitchen with stainless steel countertops.

Sarah Smith, the Program Director, started in early 2016 and oversees the employment program. “We’ve built an environment here that encourages people to try new things and to make mistakes and learn from them,” she says. “There’s also power in a paycheck. People feel good about earning money. And they should. Our employees with disabilities work really hard. We see their successes here translate into their everyday lives, too!”

Sarah also sees the relationships. “What I love most is hearing our employees with and without disabilities laugh together,” she says. “I’m talking genuine laughs. In our workplace, people build trusting, valuable friendships. To watch those develop and hear people laughing together over a joke or a silly mistake, like accidentally spraying yourself with the dishwasher hose, those are the best moments.”

Another moment that might rank up there too is when she’s eating her favorite dish at the restaurant: the poached pear and beet salad with chicken—”Pears, beets, candied walnuts, blue cheese crumbles, with a homemade citrus vinaigrette … what’s not to love?!” she muses.

Samantha (the author) trains Matt to check the consistency of a mixture with an industrial mixer standing by.To my mind, the prep kitchen may just be the most important part of the whole restaurant. That’s because it’s where Suzanna Kunkle, head baker, creates her mouth-watering pies and lip-smacking sweets. Suzanna has extensive experience in baking and eventually wants to open her own bakery-slash-brewery. Still, she has learned plenty here. “Working with people who don’t know how to bake and teaching them the process has been awesome because it teaches me how to slow down my business so I can have a better feel for it in the long run.” Even though chocolate is a favorite of hers, Suzanna really enjoys making the cinnamon rolls from scratch. “Cinnamon has a nostalgic smell. It’s more for winter desserts but is found in many summer desserts,” she says. As for this writer, I think we can all concur that the smell of cinnamon rolls baking is truly heavenly!

Tyler and I jaywalk across the street back to the restaurant. At one point, he warns me that I’m approaching a parked car. “I know,” I say. “I can sense it.” I explain to him that when I worked here, I would often cross that narrow street to bring freshly baked goods from the prep kitchen to the restaurant to be sold. Along that trip, I would purposely tap parked cars with my cane to try and set off the car alarm. But, alas, I was never successful.

Inside the restaurant, a customer named Allan makes his regular appearance. He’s been coming here for over two years and finds it quiet enough for him to write and enjoy a cup of coffee or a baked good. It’s his routine. He compares Jack’s and Steamers to Cheers, the fictional bar made famous in the TV show. “They remembered me and my name after only a couple of times, and I like that,” he says. “I feel welcomed.”

As I say my farewells and promise to be back before another three years pass, Athan gives me another monstrous hug. I thank her and tap my cane toward the door. Outside, the sun feels warmer and the traffic sounds heavier. Lunchtime is looming.

Looking back, I was truly fortunate and blessed to have my first job as a blind person at Jack’s and Steamers. To be able to pursue my passion for baking beyond my home kitchen, to have two blind interns working under me, and to work with a staff that was supportive and cared about me was a dream. I felt very lucky to get that experience. I felt welcomed. I still do.

Two employees stand posing in front of the counter smiling and offering plates of something delicious. behind them is the menu, espresso machine, flavor pumps, pastries, muffins, cookies, etc.

*Jack’s Bar & Grill and Steamers Coffeehouse was named the 2019 Business of the Year by the Arvada Chamber of Commerce. It is located at 8565 Five Parks Drive in Arvada, Colorado. Stay connected with them on Facebook, or learn more about them at steamerscoffeeshop.com*

—About the Author—

Samantha Meddaugh is a former commercial baker and has been blind since 2004. This is her second publication with Aromatica Poetica. Check out her interview, “A Blind Baker’s Perspective.”