Stop in for a coffee at the Café Sunflower, in the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s building in Rockville, and you’re likely to see Kelsey Pitta behind the counter. Pitta, 26, is the manager of the café, which opened in March 2015 to train individuals with developmental and cognitive disabilities before they enter full-time employment. Before Sunflower, she was a pastry chef at Ted’s Bulletin in Washington. When she is not in the café, Pitta can be found cooking at home or planning for her wedding in October.
What got you into the restaurant business?
I graduated from high school and decided to go to the University of Miami and I hated it. So I decided to study criminology. I changed from pre-med to criminology to business and then I left because I realized I just wanted to be a baker. And then I decided to leave and go to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. And I graduated with a bachelor’s in restaurant management.
What drew you to this job?
I wanted to work for Sunflower Bakery because they did more than just baking. In every other job, I felt like we were always looking at the bottom line. Were we making money? How could we make more money? And then I found this job, where the money always goes back to, “How can we enhance our training? How can we get people ready for jobs?” And that changed my entire perspective.
Describe your responsibilities.
My responsibilities are all over the place. I’ve helped with the design, which we’ve changed multiple times. Buying the equipment, doing general ordering, working with the cash register. But my main responsibility is training the employees and getting them ready to apply for other jobs in customer service.
What is one particularly powerful experience you’ve had here?
These three high school juniors came to me and they said, “What can we do to help you? We need to do this project through SourceAmerica [a disabled employment support agency].” And I kind of dismissed it since I was busy. But I said, “It’d be really good if you made me an app that shows how to make change.”
And they came back and asked my staff how it would be easier for them, and it was an eight-month process, and they made it to the national finals. They were chosen out of 127 entries and they came in second place. And they actually picked one of our employees to join their team as their ambassador.
And his mother and I kind of chatted. And she told me how when her son was in high school, all his teachers used to say, “He won’t be able to get a job. He won’t be able to do these things.” And she was like, “He can do this, and you’re not giving him the opportunity.”
And she said, “Kelsey, without you saying to them that you needed this, they would have never thought of this.” And now that this app is on the app store it can create jobs for anyone. And I kind of had this moment of, “Oh my God, this is so much bigger than just this little café.”
How does the training work?
It’s different than a training program at any other restaurant. My fiancée right now is training as a sous chef at a restaurant, and so his training schedule is: you learn in one day how to expedite food, and that’s it. Whereas here, every day we might have to train someone on how to ring something up or how to make change.
For you it’s easy. You know what a quarter is. But for someone else, it might not be as easy. They don’t understand what a quarter looks like compared to a nickel. We have an app that was created for us by high school students that shows dollar bills and then the amount of change you give back. So if it’s $2.47 you plug it in and it shows you a picture. Then our more intense training is our barista training. Not every employee can do the barista training, but a lot of them can, and that’s where they learn how to make cappuccinos, lattes, Americanos. They even know the regulars’ orders.
Has working in the Jewish community been fun?
It has. I love the idea of Shabbat. I wish that we did that. I’m Catholic, so we just feel guilty about everything.