By Brenlee Coates
Opening a new restaurant is tough. Workers need to be trained, peak times need to be determined, and menus have to be tested.
As these details are getting ironed out, the Lunch Bell Bistro is also debuting a completely unprecedented training program.
Based on the success of the Changes organization’s person-centred support services, it has branched out into ownership of a restaurant, where some of its clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities are being trained in the hospitality industry.
“We train them to work in this establishment, but we train them to adapt to any hospitality environment,” says general manager of the Lunch Bell, Josh Marantz. The students of the program spend 10 weeks training in the kitchen and 10 weeks in the front-of-house before making room for new eager trainees and seeking employment elsewhere in the field.
Though still on its first batch of students, the Lunch Bell has seen tremendous success with the rollout of the program.
“They have learned more than I ever thought possible in a short time. Part of that has to do with their willingness to learn – they’re so eager,” says Josh.
“The students that (Changes) are recommending for our program have been vetted extensively and the students really want to do it.”
The educational component doesn’t mean you have to manage your expectations before visiting – the Lunch Bell has attentive wait staff, fresh, healthy food options made in-house (it isn’t even equipped with a deep fryer) and speedy kitchen times (usually under 10 minutes for its mainly soups, salads and sandwiches menu).
Even with a tricky location on Main Street at Higgins Avenue in the Bell Hotel, the bistro has had enthusiastic response since getting the word out after a soft opening in August.
Though currently funded by the three levels of government and CentreVenture Corp. (which approached Changes with the idea), the business aims to be self-sufficient by its second year, so it faces the usual challenges of achieving prosperity in the competitive restaurant industry.
One thing Josh has found especially humbling is the respect the establishment has been granted by all of the surrounding residents, workers and visitors to the neighbourhood.
“Everything from the business people to the street people… It’s very, very rewarding, the acceptance of the general public.
“As much as you tell yourself it’s the good thing to do and it’s rewarding, it’s nice to get that validation.”
With a concise menu and interior seating for just 30 people, other streams primarily drive business for the Lunch Bell. For instance, its catering service (which comprises food preparation without serving staff) makes up about 70 per cent of its revenue. The bistro can cater to large organizations, schools, and any size business lunch, and offers city-wide delivery.
The restaurant also has a grab-and-go fridge and take-out at its 662 Main St. location, which means zero wait time for busy downtown workers.
Worthy of mention is the incredible interior designed by local architect Liane Veness (of Work/Shop) – the long and narrow restaurant is warmed by a wooden geometric ceiling treatment and bright white tiles encasing the booths. The white room glistens and has an organic, earthy atmosphere.
Even though it doesn’t get by on its social merit, the Lunch Bell does all the little things right, sending the leftover food at the end of the day on to Changes programs.
Lunch Bell Bistro is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visit http://www.lunchbellbistro.ca for more information on its training program or to view its dine-in/take-out and catering menus.