This Restaurant Is Designed To Welcome Kids With Autism, Other Disabilities
WILDWOOD CREST, N.J. — Wildwood Crest’s newest dining destination has a mission to not only serve up delicious treats, but to also provide a welcoming destination for families of children with autism and other disabilities.
Owners Aimee and Karl Famiano drew inspiration from their own family’s experiences when they opened Brandon’s Pancake House and Ice Cream Parlor on New Jersey Avenue — named after their son.
Over the years, the couple noticed how Brandon, who has autism and is nonverbal, would often be overlooked and left out when dining out with his family, Aimee said.
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“Servers wouldn’t give him a menu because they would assume that he couldn’t read,” she said. “And the look on his face because of the lack of inclusion and compassion … to be at a table with a bunch of people and you not being looked at, you being overlooked.”
Their goal was to make the restaurant, which opened in April, Brandon’s “forever place” — so that they could someday leave the business to him.
From the decorations to the menus and trained staff, the pancake house puts special emphasis on details that make the dining experience more inclusive.
There are two menus, for example, that list the many breakfast, lunch and dessert items served at Brandon’s.
However, the second menu is a laminated “picture menu” that has images of the items, so people who are nonverbal can point to or circle an item with a dry erase marker when they are ready to order.
“This is amazing even for neurotypical kiddos who you just want to teach manners or social skills to,” Aimee said.
“Or you can have your 3-year-old participate and teach them how to do things in a restaurant, so everybody has a chance to be a participant in the ordering process and in their own life,” she continued.
Walking into Brandon’s, customers will also spot a counter covered in autism awareness puzzle pieces that many guests have already written their names on.
There is also a basket full of sensory toys for customers of all ages to fidget and play with while they wait for their food or to be seated.
And if the restaurant gets too loud, servers can offer guests noise canceling headphones.
The owners said small gestures, including ensuring their staff members demonstrate patience and make direct eye contact while serving patrons, is what makes people feel genuinely welcomed and at ease at Brandon’s Pancake House and Ice Cream Parlor.
The restaurant also makes it a mission to hire people with disabilities, the owners said. Brandon, their now 25-year-old son, helps out by putting away plates, organizing the silverware or by acting as “mayor” of the business, his parents said with a laugh.
Brandon’s Pancake House also collaborates with local schools to offer paid job opportunities to help high school students with autism and other disabilities gain work experience and develop life and culinary skills. Sometimes the temporary positions will become permanent jobs, according to the restaurant’s owners.
Schools have also called to ask if they can bring students to the pancake house and ice cream parlor for field trips, they said.
Following the restaurant’s April ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was attended by Wildwood Crest’s mayor, Brandon’s has drawn a warm response from the community and had a busy start to the summer season, the owners said.
Although there have been challenges with finding good workers to keep up with orders at the restaurant, the business is thriving and going “better than expected,” said Karl, who wrote in his 1997 Lower Cape May Regional high school yearbook that his dream was to own a pancake house.
Aimee is a special education teacher and her husband Karl — a stepdad to both Brandon and his 27-year-old brother — worked in sales for a decade before becoming the chef behind the omelets, burgers, wraps and other menu items served at the restaurant.
Brandon’s brother, John, has also been there along the way to support his family members, who currently reside in the Villas section of Lower Township, the couple said.
Their location at 6200 New Jersey Ave. was previously the Doo Wop Drive-in, a breakfast and lunch restaurant.
Jason Kramer, owner of the now-closed Doo Wop Drive-in, put the property up for sale last year for almost $1 million, saying he wanted to spend more time with his sick children, including one who had a serious illness. He said buying the property would be a unique opportunity for someone to run a family business.
With a dream and a mission inspired by their son, the Famiano family said they sold everything and moved back to New Jersey from Pennsylvania to start the restaurant in Wildwood Crest.
“People were so warm, saying thank you for this, sending us videos,” Aimee said. “It’s just really overwhelming, in a good way.”
© 2023 Advance Local Media LLC
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