Can a business made up of young employees considered "vulnerable" change attitudes and turn a profit? Wiggly Worm charity founder and Star Bistro driving force Rob Rees explains how he is working to create a healthy and accessible environment
Star Bistro is no ordinary bistro. It's by far one of my toughest projects to date. Opening an independent eatery in this economic climate is never going to be easy. It will need all of my 25 years' experience managing public health budgets, tourism organisation marketing, and lessons learnt while chairman of School Food Trust, if it is ever to succeed.
For National Star Foundation - our valuable partners for this social enterprise - the project was a bold decision. But it is a clear message that education and business needs to collaborate differently, and through well-informed partnerships.
Situated in the grounds of National Star College at Ullenwood Manor in the heart of the Cotswolds, Star Bistro is bright, colourful and open plan. The menus range from hospitality, banqueting and all-day dining, but the focus is bistro-style lunches and puddings.
Like all good eateries working with fresh and local produce, we adapt our menus daily according to the finest ingredients available, with rarely more than 10 speciality dishes at once. All our menus are reduced salt and as low in fat as possible. Our goal is to create a product of real quality and value for money, with a competitive edge and a loyal customer following - and maybe a few of the chef accolades that drive so many of us to distraction when we should be focusing on what is key to our business success.
In a modern British food culture, the above doesn't sound so different, does it? So, why the "no ordinary bistro" tag? Did I mention that the entire chef brigade and front-of-house team has a disability of some kind and for whatever reason may be labelled as "vulnerable" in our 21st-century society? That each one of them is aged between 18 and 21 years? Along with the National Star Foundation, we have designed an infrastructure for our kitchen and front-of-house to make the Bistro the most inclusive place to learn and work.
I've championed for years - in my local NHS Gloucestershire - the need for quality experiences for people with disabilities and the need for employers of all sectors to understand what constitutes a healthy workplace. Managing disability is not just about ramps and emergency cords on the toilet and being disabled is not just about a physical difference. It can often manifest itself in mental health issues such as stress, depression and addiction.
We can all do more to understand what an individual can bring to our workplace beyond any disability. Everyone can be encouraged to have aspirations - whether daily goals or long-term ambitions. Managing difference - whether in age, race, income or disability - is something that we must do better for a more inclusive product and customer experience. It is too easy for workplace societies to bully and alienate people for just being who they are. Nobody is perfect.
So, we are no ordinary bistro. I'm determined to achieve our aspirations, to have a respected and valued Star Bistro, but just as importantly I want to show the wider world of work that we judge a book by its cover at its peril.
The challenge set for myself and National Star Foundation is to create a quality dining experience with a loyal following of customers and a surplus income to reinvest so that young people with disabilities can develop their skills ready for employment. Like all good businesses, we need to understand, value and listen to our customers.
If you want to experience a great bistro with a great value offer, then come and see us. You may well agree with us that Star Bistro is certainly "no ordinary bistro".
Inclusive for customers
We seek out, upon customer booking, any physical, mental or dietary requirements and cater accordingly. Our chef works hard to accommodate special dietary needs with gluten-free, vegan and other options available. Our team is trained in product reformulation for specialist diets and we have plans afoot to develop a quality brand of products for this market in the future. We actively encourage children to enjoy Star Bistro and offer them small portions.
We cater for customers who have disabilities as well as those who don't. We have customers who may be in a wheelchair or have other degrees of disability or difference - perhaps autism, cerebral palsy or Tourette's syndrome.
Many of the tables that customers dine at are height adjustable to accommodate different customer heights, while some of our dining chairs have hand rests to offer choice for those who may find it difficult to get up and down. Large blackboard menus on the walls are for those who may be visually impaired and we are also developing Braille options.
Not all of society will embrace disability like we do at Star Bistro, but we can certainly help to change the attitudes and misconceptions of many with our work by offering great value and quality dining while providing a safe and real learning environment for young people with disabilities to gain skills for employment.
"My brain tumour took my life away"
Joe Cook, student, National Star College, aged 19 Six years ago, Joe Cook developed a brain tumour. Before the tumour he was fully active, with no disability, but now he has complex disabilities including problems with his eyesight and hearing as well as ataxia (issues with his balance, co-ordination and speech).
Cook has just completed a BTEC in Performing Arts (Level 2) at National Star College, but alongside his main qualification, he has taken on work experience at Star Bistro.
"I've learnt how to speak to customers in a professional way. I'm nice to them but I don't speak to them like I would to my friends," he explains.
Inspired by his experience, Cook wants to study for a Vocationally Related Qualification in "Professional Chef and Restaurant Skills" at Thames Valley University. He plans to develop his skills in a café near his home in London in preparation for the course in the next couple of years. He is determined to achieve his aspirations.
The subtle differences that embrace all employees and guests
No glasses with delicate stems but a simple and stable "one size fits all" offer.
â- Easy-to-grip cutlery, which remains sharp and usable and does not look obtrusive or different.
â- Limited number of crockery styles to make it easier for students to remember which piece goes with which dish.
â- A menu consisting mainly of oven-to-tableware dishes.
â- iPads and other technology used to assist communication.
â- When required a recordable pen is used to take orders.
â- No steps and all edges are rounded and smooth with plenty of space for ease of movement in all areas.
â- The kitchen system works from a back-wall to front-pass process.
â- The floor is of a material that will not mark from wheelchair wheels.
â- All delivery areas are ramped including access to waste depot areas.
â- All kitchen worktops, hob and sinks are height adjustable.
â- The hotplate and serving areas have room for wheelchair users to wheel up to in order to plate.
â- Despite these adjustments, the dishes are deliberately challenging to cook and although this means that the development of the team is slower and more repetitive, in the medium to long term, it results in more consistent outcomes.