By Tyler Sheetz, Transcript Correspondent
A new Delaware restaurant is partnering with an adult day program to bring Cajun food to the Delaware community and provide business training and opportunities to local individuals with disabilities.
J. Gumbo’s owner, Richard Upton, plans to start business at the former 12 South Deli venue on Sandusky Street with a grand opening celebration on May 4.
The restaurant is part of a franchise-operated chain that features menu items like gumbo, po’ boys and jambalaya. Upton said the most popular menu item is the Bumblebee Stew, because it can be paired with some of the spicy entrees to balance the heat.
He said the dishes are prepared with fresh ingredients at the central commissary in Louisville, Ky., before being distributed to individual restaurants.
“In the restaurant, we use a specially made machine to bring the food to the perfect serving temperature, while maintaining the freshness, texture and consistency that it had when prepared in the commissary,” Upton said. “We boil the rice fresh in the stores and use local vendors for our French breads.”
Upton said he chose Delaware for his new J. Gumbo’s because it is “prime for a new choice in eateries” and “a very forward thinking, sophisticated city and county.” He also said since people are accustomed to so many Mexican and Chinese/Japanese restaurants in the city they will also enjoy J. Gumbo’s.
Upton said, however, that there will be plenty more to this restaurant than great Cajun food. He said the lack of training and employment opportunities for the disabled population “has been an issue for decades,” and it has been his personal goal to change this reality.
“I am teaming up with Wilma Justice and Ann Kelly, owners of Life Builders, to administer a new training concept we have developed to provide real world, ongoing training for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities,” he said.
Wilma Justice, co-owner of Life Builders day program for adults with disabilities, said she and her business partner Ann Kelly first got to know Richard at the central Ohio regional council of PATHS, which is “a statewide organization sanctioned by the state to provide training and a credentialing program to direct support professionals.”
Justice said Richard envisioned the concept of a new program, and then worked with her and Ann to fine-tune the details. They call it the Business Education Learning Liaison, or BELL, Training Program.
“Combined, all of our strengths fit together to create a group capable of designing this program,” Justice said.
According to Justice, the program will work by ensuring each individual is first proficient in basic job skills, and then personalizing each program to reflect the motivation and ability level of the participants.
Upton said the BELL program uses many proven educational methods, but with a few novel differences. The first of these is that the path to education, training, employment and even potential business ownership is truly decided by each individual in the program.
“They choose the path, we light the way,” he said.
“The participants will not be on any type of set schedule or deadline that expels them from the program before they have been given the opportunity to reach their full potential. It will not be uncommon for some participants to remain in for six months, and others for over three years,” Upton said.
“We do not have start and stop points,” he said. “Once (an individual is) a member of the BELL family, we are there whenever we are needed.”
After completing the “Boot Camp” portion of the program at a Life Builders campus, individuals will be proficient in areas like personal safety, job site communication and interviewing, according to Upton.
“Once a Boot Camp participant has ‘graduated,’ (he/she) is eligible to apply as a candidate to the BELL Training Program,” Upton said. “We anticipate a waiting list but participants may remain in Boot Camp to build on their skills until space is available.”
Upton said participants then go on to be interviewed and hired at a participating venue like J. Gumbo’s, where they will continue to work on job skills and job exploration tactics.
He said that by the time the program is fully operational, BELL program participants could easily make up over 50 percent of the J. Gumbo’s staff. He said the BELL program will also work to develop bonds with other business to “allow full immersion in the operation of the compan[ies].”
“The long term goal of the BELL Training Program is to offer supported employment for the participants who graduate the program to work in the community or open their own small business,” Upton said.
Upton said Ohio Wesleyan students are strongly encouraged to apply to work at J. Gumbo’s through www.jgumbos.com. The restaurant plans to be open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and that they would love to be part of OWU’s meal points program.
“The Public Image Network campaign theme for 2012 is ‘Our Community is Better Together’, Upton said. “This theme is something Ann, Wilma and I truly believe in. That is why we are committing to the BELL program.
“That is why I am bringing a J. Gumbo’s to Delaware. We will show that theme. We believe this is the place where the theme will take hold.
“We look forward to a longtime affiliation with OWU, area businesses and the community as a whole.”