Craft Brew Pub Thrives, Thanks To A Secret Ingredient: Workers With Disabilities
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The word “normal” is often shunned as subjective and polarizing, but normal is all Wilber Wilson has ever wanted to be.
For him, normal means not having a speech impediment, not having developmental delay and not being called a “retard.”
Normal means pouring the perfect beer.
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“Look at my baby,” said his mother, Lathan Wilson, watching a video of him on her phone.
He held a beer under a tap, poured, twisted and capped it off with a one-inch head.
“I never thought he could do that,” she said proudly. “When he works here, he feels normal.”
There’s nothing normal about Brewability, a craft beer pub in the Denver suburbs run almost entirely by people with disabilities. The bartenders have autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Some are blind, deaf or have traumatic brain injuries.
They play to their strengths. A nearly blind barman judges a full glass by weight. The step-by-step brewing process appeals to those with autism, who crave routine. A partly deaf young man turns out to be a great listener.
“Everyone who comes in has a very interesting story to tell,” said Tony Saponaro, 29, a bartender who wears two hearing aids.
Tiffany Fixter, 35, opened Brewability Lab in Denver in 2016 and a pizzeria two years later with the goal of fully integrating those with disabilities into the business. Society told them what they couldn’t do; she would show what they could.
But she quickly learned that old prejudices die hard, that mixing business and idealism can be expensive and being a pioneer can be very lonely.
Growing up in Lincoln, Neb., Fixter would often help kids with disabilities in her elementary school. She continued to volunteer with adults with autism throughout college. She later took a job as a special education teacher in a rough part of Kansas City, Mo., before moving to Denver to supervise an adult day program for those with mental and physical disabilities. Few of them worked. Those who did were often treated like children, good for bagging groceries or mopping floors but not for handling money or interacting with customers.
Fixter had an idea.
“I wanted to treat them like adults,” she said, “and what is more adult than beer?”
When her boss fired her for “lacking creativity,” she opened Brewability Lab. Fixter color-coded the beer taps. Customers were given a menu — “orange” was amber ale, “green” India Pale Ale. It was easier for employees who couldn’t read. Braille was added to the taps.
There was a “sensory break room” for the overstimulated. It had low lights, a weighted blanket and headphones that blocked out noise. Some employees with autism went in repeatedly.
Managers without disabilities kept them on task. Employees earned the state minimum wage for tipped employees, now $8.98 per hour. For a variety of reasons, including health issues, none of the staff with disabilities worked full time and most lived with family.
Fixter eventually moved the pub to nearby Englewood and renamed it Brewability. Her mother sold a bakery she owned to finance the purchase of the new building.
In December 2018, Fixter opened Pizzability in Denver’s well-heeled Cherry Creek neighborhood. She staffed it with new employees and pub workers.
On a recent December day, an employee with Down syndrome took an order for a pepperoni pizza. She looked at hanging pictures of the pizzas available and followed step-by-step directions. She flattened the dough, ladled on sauce and carefully parceled out the toppings. When it was ready, a smiling worker with autism carefully made change for the customer.
“I have been in high-class restaurants where people aren’t this friendly,” said Lou Winne, 66, who was having lunch. “Maybe they need a little more help than others, but I think they can do whatever they put their mind to.”
Still, business was anemic. Fixter had gone door to door handing out free pizza and giving away coupons. She explained her philosophy of employing people with disabilities to the high-end jewelry shops, restaurants and specialty retailers surrounding her. Nothing worked.
Then there was social media.
“People said some mean and hateful things,” Fixter said. “They didn’t want to see people in wheelchairs. They told us we should hire models and put the special needs people in back.”
Local television reported on the comments, triggering a rush by those eager to show their support. Lines went out the door. The wait for pizza could take four hours. Two weeks later, though, business returned to normal.
“People would come in and take selfies, then turn around and leave,” Fixter said.
She had sunk her savings into Pizzability, to no avail. The place was hemorrhaging cash.
“I just missed the mark,” she said. “We don’t fit in here.”
Pizzability closed on Dec. 14 and moved to Brewability.
Later that night, Fixter came to the bar to run an ugly Christmas sweater contest. The place was jumping. Santa and Mrs. Claus were on their way. A band played Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” then “Silent Night.” Big snowflakes fell outside.
Wilber Wilson, 39, wore foam antlers as he served up beer. He grew up in Louisiana, where a doctor said he should be institutionalized.
“They said he’d be a vegetable or a menace to society who would never learn to read and write,” his mother said.
She got him occupational and speech therapy. Still, he was bullied, called names. He got into fights at school.
“I don’t think people realize that they have the same feelings as you and I do,” she said. “So when you call them retard it hurts, it cuts very deeply.”
One of his teachers discovered how much he loved sports, so they read the sports section of the newspaper together each day. It helped him read and write.
When he began pouring beer, it took five shifts to do it correctly. At first, he didn’t tilt the glass and went full throttle on the tap. The result? A pint of foam. Head brewer Tanner Schneller taught him to tilt the glass, go slow on the tap and straighten it up at the end. In time, the man who was told he couldn’t learn had mastered the technique.
“When they hired me, it changed my life,” he said. His speech impediment was strong, so his mother helped convey his words. “I want to be more independent and one day move out of my mom’s house.”
Alex Randall, 29, a nearly blind bartender, filled glasses by feeling their weight. He navigated the cash drawer by knowing which box held which bills.
A young man ordered half a dozen beers, then paused.
“Do you want to write this down?” he asked.
“No,” Randall replied. “People who are visually impaired are known for their memory.” He got each one right. His guide dog Paolo dozed, tethered to a beer keg across the room.
Chelsea Whitaker, an occupational therapy assistant, patrolled the back of the bar, watching for signs of overstimulation. Noise and lights can cause problems with employees. Those with autism may hug themselves. One repeats, “You’re OK, you’re OK,” over and over.
“Most of them have never worked before and the skills they learn here will help as they transition to other aspects of life,” Whitaker said. “They are capable of so much more than many people think.”
Avery Becker, 22, spent years in the hospital for multiple medical problems. His intestines can’t absorb nutrients and he feeds himself through a tube. Stomach ulcers cause him chronic pain.
“People don’t understand invisible disabilities. ‘You don’t look sick, so why do you still live with your mom?’ people ask,” he said. “I’m more confident now that I can say I have a job. Before I didn’t feel like I had a purpose, nothing to do with my day. This has opened so many doors for me.”
The brewery, with a staff of about 25, has a small sign on the door saying that it hires people with disabilities, but some customers don’t immediately notice.
Ken Kreutzer, 61, took a seat at the bar. He carried a notebook chronicling every brew pub he’d visited in Colorado. This was No. 221. He asked the staff to sign the book.
Randall drew in close and wrote his name.
“Can I sign too?” asked bartender Aaron Harris, who has autism.
Kreutzer slowly realized where he was. He smiled.
“Wow, this place just made my day,” he said.
Fixter was still feeling a bit down from closing Pizzability earlier. It wasn’t a failure, she said, but “an extreme learning experience.”
Combining the two businesses meant she was now severely overstaffed, but she didn’t want to lay anyone off.
“How could I do that?” she asked.
Over the years, she’s received messages from around the globe from those eager to copy her business or express support.
“The whole world is watching,” she said. “They are watching whether I succeed or fail.”
For those working tonight, the answer seemed clear — a bartender with autism bantered with customers, a nearly blind one made change and Wilber Wilson poured the perfect beer.
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