Cooking up change: How the Beautiful Rainbow Café transforms lives

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Beautiful Rainbow students smile for a photo before welcoming customers to the restaurant. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

The Beautiful Rainbow Café serves more than modern culinary delights.

Housed inside the Gadsden Public Library, its mission nourishes a portion of the population often marginalized, especially in the workforce – adolescents and young adults with significant cognitive disabilities. As an award-winning vocational training program recognized for its exceptional and effective efforts, the café emerges as the only full-service restaurant in the country staffed by students with cognitive disabilities.

  The recipe for Beautiful Rainbow’s success takes root in its innovative approach to educate and enable students to acquire and maintain employment. Functioning as a non-traditional classroom through restaurant operations, gardening and food production, the cafe’s work-based learning program teaches students essential skills necessary for their professional and personal growth.

  Selected by Governor Kay Ivey as the ‘Best Work-Based Learning Program’ in northeast Alabama, Beautiful Rainbow’s on-the-job training prepares students for their futures. While the café naturally applies academic skills, its focus hinges on transition skills that students need to function independently in the community. Café students adopt these transition skills while learning socialization, critical thinking and self-efficacy through roles performed at the restaurant.

Every aspect of running the café is addressed, from cooking and washing dishes, to cleaning and working a point of sale. Students garner insight into the importance of teamwork, collaborating and cooperating with others to serve and greet customers properly. Beneficial knowledge on appropriate clothing and conflict resolution prove applicable to life in-and-outside the workplace, with students gaining deeper understanding and developing as individuals.

“We teach them their skills, but then we expect them to do them,” said Beautiful Rainbow Café Director Chip Rowan, motioning toward the students prepping for lunch one Tuesday morning. “Getting them the opportunity to meet expectations is really key. We give them that opportunity and they rise to the occasion. Most of these students haven’t had any demands put on them of any significance. They’re not asked to create or produce anything. Well, why not?”

 “That’s why they’re not succeeding — because they’ve never been expected to succeed. We expect them to run this place and after they’re taught under supervision, it’s been easy. I think that’s why they respond. Isn’t it really an innate human drive to want to create and produce something? They have that same drive. It’s just part of being alive.”

Rowan planted the seed for Beautiful Rainbow Café years ago, when he charted a new course within his own classroom at a local middle school. As a special education teacher working with more severe students, Rowan discovered that traditional educational methods (such as worksheets and textbooks) fared poorly in achieving progress for those with significant disabilities. Rowan understood that hands-on and active teaching strategies were much more effective in producing a positive response.

An avid gardener and self-taught chef, Rowan incorporated a small garden into his curriculum as a vessel for teaching core subjects. He orchestrated science projects where students analyzed the soil and talked about the climate. Students studied math through measuring plant growth and graphing produce harvested. Rowan’s implementation of a daily garden journal prompted students to write and follow alongside a SMART Board that detailed their activities. While several students began as non-readers, their involvement with the garden improved their literacy – as they spoke and wrote words in their journals, they learned how to read.

That little garden cultivated a whirlwind of change. Soon, Rowan’s students began taking orders from teachers for garden salads, assembling produce and running a school-based enterprise. Students were responsible for handling money as their menu expanded. From fresh greens to chocolate truffles for Valentine’s Day, more elaborate dishes bloomed from their hands.

In 2015, Rowan acquired a grant from the Alabama State Department of Education to fund the first ever summer program for students with disabilities in public schools. Renovated space at Litchfield Middle School transformed into a commercial kitchen, where Rowan and his coworkers taught professional culinary techniques. Every Thursday, Rowan invited the community to visit and taste the sophisticated creations students forged from scratch.

Business, political, educational and religious leaders alike observed the program’s transformative nature, tasting delicious food and witnessing an invaluable community resource before them. Former Gadsden Public Library Director Amanda Jackson was among those initial inspired guests, but her vision for the program outstretched a single summer.

Jackson approached Rowan about a cluttered storage space at the library she believed would suffice as a bake shop, something the program could use to further its endeavors. Rowan equated the opportunity with a similar project that surged in Greensboro, Alabama, known as Pie Lab. He read in The New York Times that this quaint Hale County bakery put the Black Belt on the culinary map, developing a shop that employed teenagers and aided disadvantaged youth.

While Southern Living was honoring Pie Lab with a ribbon for the best apple pie in the south, Pie Lab was baking more than irresistible treats. Founded on simple, tried-and-true philosophies, like the medicinal powers of delicious pie and the comfort of good conversation, Pie Lab brought a community together. It spread joy with every slice, investing in its people and uplifting its town.

Rowan knew Gadsden could do the same.

Following a series of grants and renovations, the Beautiful Rainbow Café sprouted in 2017 and surged with success ever since. As a Gadsden City Schools program, Rowan – who now teaches at Gadsden City High School – works alongside case managers to identify students who would benefit from working at the café. The café focuses on students who are overlooked and underserved. Several students chopping vegetables, welcoming customers or waiting tables are members of the school’s self-contained classroom. Others selected to work at the café might fade into the background in a traditional school setting, and simply need an opportunity to discover their own talents in a safe space.

“We want students to perceive that this is a job where they have responsibilities,” said Rowan. “They’re paid minimum wage or above. At the same time, it’s also a therapeutic environment. For instance, if you break a plate, nobody is going to freak out. You’re just going to clean it up. If you burn something, you’re just going to throw it in the trash and start over. It’s not a Gordon Ramsey kitchen. I think they understand they have expectation to succeed, but room to learn.”

Sensational seasonal dishes ordain Beautiful Rainbow’s menu, with recipes enriched with fresh ingredients from neighboring farms or the café’s own garden, flourishing just across the street.  The café’s elevated vegetarian cuisine surges with unique flavors delectable enough to intrigue even the strictest carnivores, posing as the only exclusive plant-based dining option in Gadsden and surrounding areas.

Basil-infused olive oil drizzled over butternut squash marries spinach, ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano and mozzarella cheeses in Beautiful Rainbow’s signature vegetarian lasagna, oozing with layers of wheat noodles and homemade marinara sauce. Jumbo farm-fresh sweet potatoes stuffed with black beans, guacamole and Pico de Gallo transport a taste of the west to the southeast, while comfort food turns gourmet with the café’s classic pimento cheese sandwich, topped with alfalfa sprouts.

Orange blossom lemonade proves the perfect pairing for any meal, with an array of coffees and desserts awaiting guests seeking to satisfy a hankering for sweetness. Banana-pineapple spiced hummingbird cake, enormous chocolate swirl cookies and mouth-watering caramel carrot cake earn a beloved place in customer hearts as a sampling of the café’s famous treats.

Everything on Beautiful Rainbow’s menu is made from scratch by students, all who are certified in ServSafe training. Students cook in an open kitchen that overlooks the café’s clean and modern dining area, where guests can observe preparation as they await their meals. The students even produce educational training videos, which showcase the lessons they learn for teachers statewide, who access them free of charge.

“This is full-on production work,” said Beautiful Rainbow staff member Chris Wood, a seasoned food industry professional who instructs students alongside Rowan. “It’s preparing mise en place, planning ahead, doing bulk orders, cooking-to-order. Everyone has discounted these kids and asked less of them [in the past]. They’ll perform – all you have to do is ask. If they don’t know, all you have to do is show. Once you show, they can go.”

Continuous success stories manifest in Beautiful Rainbow’s students, who represent living testimonies of the program’s transformative nature. Well-known and beloved Candido traveled to the United States as an asylee from Guatemala, navigating life on his own until he reached the border through Mexico. He spoke neither Spanish nor English. At age 13, he had attended school for only one year.

As one of Rowan’s students, Candido learned to read and speak English through Rowan’s garden journal that initially served as the catalyst for the café. Today, Candido has reunited with family and recently received his permanent residency card. His time at Beautiful Rainbow encouraged him to pursue a position in the Gadsden City High School marching band, giving him confidence to audition for drum major in the spring of 2022.

Proficient and dependable Jamari once huddled in his shell, a withdrawn student who rarely spoke and struggled with anxiety. The brother of a former Beautiful Rainbow graduate who now works at Gadsden Variety & Deli, Jamari soon embraced a few recipes for which he discovered a passion. In a short time, 16-year-old Jamari blossomed into the café’s main cook, accomplishing extraordinary feats and ensuring the kitchen operates without a hitch.

“When I first came here, I was quiet and didn’t really know how to do anything,” said Jamari. “A few weeks later, I learned how to cook everything and run the kitchen by myself. I serve plates, clean and do the dishes. I can cook everything on the menu. I enjoy cooking most – I like to see what I can do and how I can make it better.”

“Of every student we’ve had, I don’t think we’ve had a single failure,” said Rowan. “They’ve all progressed. Beautiful Rainbow gives them purpose and confidence, making them feel confident they can do something. The vision was to create this space…that’s what we set out do to. I would like to see more people in more communities and more teachers be inspired to think about what people with disabilities can do. We can be the inspiration.”

In just four years, Beautiful Rainbow’s ripple-effect abounds. Prior to the program, 80 students were assessed following their graduation from the Gadsden City Schools special education department. Not a single student held a job, nor were any involved in an employment training program.

In 2021, 35 students who participated in the Beautiful Rainbow program are employed throughout Etowah County – a community that stands united with the café to embrace diversity in its residents and foster progress for its citizens.

The impact of Beautiful Rainbow Café is paramount, its influence on the community growing without cease. The café partners with a plethora of local farms and business to build beneficial bridges and strengthen its cities. The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County, Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Eastaboga Bee Company, Teatown Alabama, Owl’s Hollow Farm, Dayspring Dairy, Mama Mocha coffee and Kings Olive Oil Company are just a handful of the local and regional relationships Beautiful Rainbow treasures.

“I think Beautiful Rainbow has shown this community that people with disabilities have a lot to offer and contribute to the community,” said Rowan. “People before might not have realized this. By opening the café and having an open-work situation where people with Down Syndrome or autism spectrum disorder are cooking you really good food, working the cash register or serving makes you think differently about the abilities of people. Having students employed all over the city in different settings has opened the eyes of a lot of people that this is a resource in the community that’s been underutilized. People need to be treated with dignity and the expectation that they can succeed. That’s what we do, we show them that’s a possibility.”

As plants outstretch toward the sun, Beautiful Rainbow Café reaches toward a brighter tomorrow. Together, alongside Rowan, Wood and a community that believes in them, students receive support to become the best versions of themselves, striving toward successful and joyful lives each day. The stunning shades that ordain rainbows, wrapping across cerulean skies into the clouds, emerge unique in their individuality. Separate, they are lovely; but together, each vibrant hue produces a phenomenon truly extraordinary. Those rich and beaming colors mirror the students passing through Beautiful Rainbow Café. All different yet exceptional, Beautiful Rainbow students emerge as an inspiration, sharing the same passion to discover their purpose, the same hope to achieve and the same desire to create – representing the resounding truth that when united, they establish something beautiful.

“People say all the time, ‘pick out a teacher or someone who changed your life,’” said Rowan, whose experience working with a child named Richard Gibbs during a summer camp inspired him to enter the special education field. “A kid really changed mine.”

“[When working with Richard, other kids like him and students at Beautiful Rainbow] you could be yourself and they could be themselves without any kind of judgements. There was the freedom to be who you were – it teaches you a lot about the range of humanity. [At Beautiful Rainbow Café] we want everyone to realize that all people want a place where they’re productive, creative and their life is meaningful. We need to make sure that everybody has that opportunity.”

The Beautiful Rainbow Café is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Gadsden Public Library on 254 South College Street in Gadsden. For more information, visit www.beautifulrainbowcafe.com.

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