MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — In retrospect, February 2020 was the worst possible time to open a restaurant. The pandemic shut everything down less than a month later, and more than a few establishments never reopened.

But No Limits Café in Middletown is still standing. That’s a big deal, because it’s the first New Jersey eatery to be staffed almost entirely by adults with intellectual disabilities.

“Every week is getting better and better,” co-founder Stephanie Cartier said of the pace of business. “What’s good about us is we’re one of the only restaurants that doesn’t have an employee problem — a lack of employees. Last week alone we had three people with intellectual disabilities looking for jobs. We could staff a whole other restaurant if we wanted to.”

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No Limits Café was co-founded by Stephanie and Mark Cartier, Middletown residents whose daughter Katie has Down syndrome.

“When she was 18 we said, ‘She can stay in school until she’s 21 but then what’s going to happen?” Stephanie Cartier told the Asbury Park Press in 2020. “She will fall off a cliff.”

The “cliff” is the precipitous drop in communal opportunities for adults with intellectual disabilities once they age out of the special education system at 21. With that in mind, the Cartiers’ launched this restaurant. They hire greeters, servers and kitchen hands who make the New Jersey minimum wage of $12 an hour.

No Limits Café employs 38 people — 34 adults with intellectual disabilities and four neurotypical adults. Like other eateries, it closed for three months at the pandemic’s onset, then opened with outdoor seating only through the summer and fall of 2020.

This past summer it closed on weekends due to lower customer flow, but is now open Mondays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. All employees are fully vaccinated, so they are not required to wear masks.

As a nonprofit, No Limits benefited from donations and fundraisers. The latter has been tougher during the pandemic.

The café pulled off just one in-person fundraiser this year, a golf outing. A second one was planned for Oct. 7, the New Jersey Marathon, which got canceled last month when host city Long Branch objected.

“We had 65 team members and everybody was super excited and raised almost $30,000,” said Ilene Winters, who is No Limits Café’s director of development. “When the race got canceled everybody was so disappointed.”

That $30,000 is still going to No Limits, but supporters wanted it pegged to an event so fundraising momentum could keep building. So the restaurant created its own race — a 5K and half-marathon at Thompson Park in the Lincroft section of Middletown. It takes place Oct. 16. As of now, 120 people have signed up. The goal is 200. The entry fee is $30 per person and includes pre- and post-race food and drink, plus on-course drinks and snacks.

“We’re offering people a race T-shirt if they raise $100, and for every $100 they raise above that they get an entry into a grand-prize drawing,” Winters said. “Some people have raised over $2,000.”

That spirit is why No Limits’ doors remain open.

“The kindness of all our donors has helped us get through COVID,” Cartier said. “That’s been a game-changer for us. Slowly, we’ve been able to get back on our feet. Now the restaurant is doing pretty well. We’re very pleased, but of course we still need donations to keep us going.”

Cartier also has a message for fellow restaurant owners.

“If anyone needs to hire people, there are plenty of people out there looking,” she said. “We’ll be glad to help anyone do it.”

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