In 2013, after more than a decade of working with adults with special needs, Ruth Thompson opened Hugs Cafe in McKinney. Not your average restaurant, Hugs Cafe employs individuals with disabilities, providing them not only with training and employment but a sense of community, pride and self-worth. It is Thompson’s hope that she can not only improve the lives of adults with special needs, many of whom are overlooked, but change perceptions and misconceptions about what it means to be an adult with a disability—one hug at a time.
Where did you get the idea to start Hugs Cafe?
I’ve worked with and have had a passion for adults with special needs for a long time. Years back, I started cooking classes for individuals with disabilities in which we worked on home skills and how to prepare simple but nutritious meals. During that time, I had a dream two nights in a row to start a restaurant for adults with special needs. When I told my husband, he said, “Well we have to do it!”
What responsibilities do your employees have at Hugs Cafe?
Well, they do everything in the restaurant! They are the greeters, bussers, dishwashers, servers. They make the food, the cookies, the chicken salad. They do everything there is to do in the restaurant. We recently promoted a young lady with Down syndrome to kitchen lead. She showed that she could train other employees, and we watched her capably run the kitchen by herself. Seeing that, the logical choice was to promote her to a management position.
Where did you find your employees?
We did not search very long or hard. We had over 130 adults with special needs coming to the cooking classes. We had a community with them, and they had all heard about my dream and knew we were going to be opening the restaurant. They came to me and said, “I want to be part of that.” One thing that instigated my dream was seeing their reactions whenever someone got a job. They would celebrate and clap and get so excited. People with special needs want a job and a purpose and a meaning just like the rest of us. Unfortunately, it’s more difficult for them to obtain that. So, I didn’t have to work very hard at all to find the teammates for the restaurant.
What changes have you seen in the lives of your works since you’ve been able to provide them with gainful and meaningful employment?
Their confidence has just taken off, as has their work ethic—they are learning to live independently. Not only are we giving these individuals a job, but we are giving them a community. When people with special needs age out of school, you often find adults sitting at home; they lose their community. But when they walk through the door to the restaurant, they have that back. They are invited to birthday parties; they go to movies together. Every single person is just so happy. To see them all beaming is wonderful.
Have you seen a change in how the local community views people with disabilities since you opened the restaurant?
In the beginning, we would see people come in not certain of what they were walking into. I think people felt that because of who we employed, they would just get a bologna sandwich. Now, people are seeing that we have gourmet sandwiches, delicious food and a capable staff. They see that the people we employ are just individuals like you and me—very happy individuals!
What misconceptions are you trying to eliminate about individuals with special needs?
It’s sad that there are so many people in the world with a preconceived notion that being around a person with a disability is depressing. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Part of our mission is to educate the community on the life of someone with special needs and what that means. I always say, “You can walk into Hugs in a bad mood, but it’s almost impossible to walk out with one.”
How can the local community help support Hugs Cafe and adults with disabilities?
Come in and see us! Get to know the people who work in the restaurant. Learn about their lives. We also accept monetary and physical donations. We are currently raising funds for Hugs Greenhouse, which is one of the social enterprises we have started. We also need monetary donations to go toward a new convection oven and a fudge machine and to help offer scholarships to Hugs Prep, our course of evening classes that teaches adults with special needs how to get a job in the food service industry.