picture1It is a Friday afternoon and the restaurant is filled with diners, a positive sight in a financial climate where people are conscious of their spending.

It may look like any other eatery, but customers are soon introduced to why it is unique when they are handed a large children’s book.

Inside is a menu and a message. It reads: “Do not judge a book by its cover”.

It then explains that this is a restaurant that seeks to offer sustainable employment for young people with learning disabilities.

The 180 Degrees restaurants in Portadown and Armagh are run by the Step by Step NI Ltd charity and are aimed at offering experience to 16 to 22-year-olds who have expressed an interest in catering.

They work with the Southern Regional College to provide training within a working environment in order to provide them with the qualifications and confidence to enter the world of work.

The idea for the 180 restaurants derived from project manager Alan Brown’s experience working with Barnardos.

This charity established a Belfast city centre restaurant with the similar premise of providing employment to those with learning disabilities.

He said that this project saw 85% of its young people progressing into employment and out of this number, 90% remained in jobs two years later.

Experience

The Portadown restaurant was established two years ago after Alan and his co-founder Shirley Agnew received the funding they needed.

Alan said that aside from the restaurant in Belfast, all that is available for people is a standard college course.

“There are some vocational courses which focus on technical skills but people are coming out the other end with qualifications and no experience and this gives them very little opportunity to progress,” he said.

“We place them in a real restaurant environment and have a training room where we also try and end each day with half an hour focusing on food and personal hygiene, and health and safety.”

Alan said that he wanted the restaurant to not only offer young people experience in cooking and life skills but also to provide a high standard of food and service to ensure that it was able to compete with other restaurants in the vicinity.

“It doesn’t matter how good your cause is, the product must be right. People will support a cause once, but if the product isn’t right they won’t come back,” he said.

“We are called 180, yes it is a cooking temperature, and people say that we must be called that as we are trying to turn peoples’ lives around, but actually what we want to do is turn around peoples’ attitudes to disability.”

He added that the exposed kitchen was built with the purpose of allowing diners to view the young people involved in the creation of their meal and also to allow staff to witness the entire process of food production.

Challenges

There are 21 young people currently being trained in the project.

One of those is 16-year-old Richard Robinson, a relatively new member of staff who has a love of any dish including chicken.

He works in the restaurant three days a week and attends college every Monday morning.

Richard said working in the kitchen is helping him receive the experience he needs to fulfil his dream of becoming a chef.

“It’s good fun. I’m learning lots of new things,” he said.

Seventeen-year-old Victoria Mullen spends her time between the kitchen and waiting tables

Seventeen-year-old Victoria Mullen spends her time between the kitchen and waiting tables

Victoria Mullen, who is making sauce for lasagne, interrupts her food preparation to explain how she became involved with the restaurant.

The 17-year-old was at a careers evening and was drawn in by the buns and cakes she was told she would be taught how to make.

Victoria not only has gained experience in preparing and cooking food, but she also spends shifts waiting tables.

She speaks highly of the training scheme, saying: “It’s good experience for anyone who wants to do bakery or who wants to work in a restaurant”.

Everything appears to be running smoothly, and preparation is well underway for the 120 customers expected the following day, but are there ever any difficulties?

“There are never problems, only ever challenges,” Alan replies.

 

By Laura Bleakley at BBC News