In search of a healthy lunch? Stop by Genesis Health Bar at GiGi's Playhouse

Everyone benefits from a more inclusive and diverse workforce. GiGi’s Playhouse, with its recently opened Genesis Health Bar on site, is trying to shift the narrative about disabilities. The café opened in December and has been met with excitement and support from the public. 

GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne and its café located at 6081 N. Clinton St., provide free programs that are educational and therapeutic in nature to individuals with Down syndrome from birth through adulthood, their families, and the community. The organization's career development programs are focused on helping individuals transition into the workforce, too. 
Corey has fun stocking the gluten free salad bar.

Speaking of transitions, as Executive Director Holly Tonak explains, GiGi’s isn’t new to the concept of a social enterprise. She says they previously operated a boutique there, but it didn’t bring in a steady stream of business. So they looked to other options. 

“We started talking with our adults and their families and asked, 'What do they want? What does our community need?'" she says.

The answer was twofold: More healthy dining options for the community and a means for GiGi’s “friends,” as they are called, to gain experience for future jobs in the community. Tonak says the concept for a café was a natural fit because food service is the largest employer of people with disabilities.

Still, there's work to be done. For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2017 only 18.7 percent of people with a disability were employed, compared with the employment-population ratio for those without a disability at 65.7 percent.

Genesis Health Bar at GiGi’s Playhouse is addressing that divide.

The health bar café provides a learning environment for individuals with Down syndrome, intellectual development disabilities, and physical disabilities. Here, you’ll find fast, nutrient-dense beverages and food for those who are looking for an alternative snack or lunch option.

Products include a variety of healthy juices, smoothies, overnight oats, herbal teas, and a salad bar. They currently carry items from local vendors like Zinnia’s Bakehouse, Young Urban Homesteaders and Crossroads Kombucha, too.

Matt enjoys making smoothies at GiGi’s Genesis Health Bar.

Tonak says Genesis is a training ground for friends to gain practical restaurant skills. Friends range in age from 20s to 50s and anyone post high school is welcome to be considered. They help with tasks like inventory, food prep, cashier duties, and other operational duties. 

“It’s just amazing to see all that go on,” she says. 

In other words, it’s about empowerment. When you start thinking more in terms about what’s possible than what’s off the table, you’re often in for a surprise, Tonak explains.

“You can’t put limitations on any human,” she says. “Because you don’t know what they’re capable of.”

She says staff and volunteers do their best to work with the friends to develop strengths and help them minimize weaknesses. Just like the general population, she says, her clients gravitate towards certain roles because they feel more comfortable in them.

What often results is a very special bond between the workers and the customers. When it’s clear a customer enjoyed their meal, that boosts a worker's confidence and morale. 

“They get that instant gratification, and everyone feeds off that,” she says. 

In other words, it can be transformative, which is why the cafe’s name is fitting. According to Tonak, Genesis has multiple meanings.

“It’s the beginning of something,” she says, adding that it’s often the shift towards a more balanced diet for customers. But it also represents a new beginning for GiGi's friends, who are gaining knowledge and experience to apply to a future job.

Tonak acknowledges all of this would not be possible without outside support. They were awarded funds from the second-annual Ambassador’s Enterprises SEED Challenge, in addition to a private donation, which helped them get the venture off the ground. 

“The community really came through on this,” she says. 

Support Genesis Health Bar

The Genesis Health Bar café is located at 6081 N. Clinton St. They are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday. They are in need of volunteers to assist in a variety of capacities. 

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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