In a black chef’s jacket and matching cap, Emmanuel Yver rolls out his dough, gently presses it into a pan, pricks it with a fork to prevent air bubbles, and slides it into the oven, explaining each step as he goes. When the crust is done, he adds fresh spinach, Swiss cheese and custard. He steps back and smiles. “Good, right?” It’s the first of four quiches he will make this morning: two spinach, one Lorraine, one broccoli, all delicious.
Welcome to Blue Bears Special Meals, a restaurant in the Princeton Shopping Center known for its French-style food and its mission: to provide meaningful, paid work for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs).
On this busy Friday, Yver, 27, who has Down syndrome, makes quiches. He’s also known for his finely diced vegetables and neat gnocchi. His brother, Gabriel, 24, who also has the disability, works beside him, weighing and portioning slices of ham and smoked salmon and labeling the containers. They are the sons of Blue Bears owners Antoine and Gaud Yver, who founded the restaurant out of concern for the futures of their children and others similarly challenged.
About 10 staffers with intellectual and developmental disabilities work alongside employees and volunteers who do not have disabilities. Depending on their skills, they restock supplies, bus tables, dice vegetables, bake cakes, prepare meals and serve customers. They’re paid New Jersey’s minimum hourly wage. Natasha Morris, who has Down syndrome and has worked at the restaurant for about two years, says she loves the job “because of the teamwork.”
Antoine and Gaud Yver are not restaurateurs by training. Antoine, once a pediatric oncologist in Paris, leads development at UK-based Centessa Pharmaceuticals and is on the board of pharma giant Sanofi. Gaud was an intensive-care nurse. They already had six children when they adopted infant Emmanuel in 1995. Over the next 15 years, they adopted three more babies with Down syndrome from France, where such adoptions are more feasible. Adopting there was much easier than in the United States, where most Down pregnancies are aborted. “Going from six to seven, we felt, was really not a big deal,” Antoine recalls. They kept going, feeling they could help children who might otherwise be abandoned.
When Emmanuel finished school at 21, the Yvers realized his employment options were bleak. According to a survey by the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, only 57 percent of adults with Down syndrome have paying positions, largely in “jobs that underutilize their skills.” The Yvers and another French couple, Eric and Marie Wimmer, decided to start an eatery following the example of a French chain, Café Joyeux, that employs people with IDDs.
After testing their idea for a year in a rented kitchen and making deliveries only, they opened Blue Bears in the Princeton Shopping Center in 2019. Gaud makes pastry; Antoine handles management. Eric Wimmer, a talented home cook, was the first chef. (The Wimmers recently returned to France.)
Blue Bears’ executive chef, Andrew Carfaro, has worked in fine-dining restaurants in New Jersey, including the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, and in Atlanta and Vail, Colorado. He and chef de cuisine Marco Santana teach as well as cook, guiding employees to master the basics one step at a time. Food emerges from the kitchen a bit more slowly than at other places he’s worked, Carfaro says. But that seems fine with what he calls the “extremely loyal” clientele.
Since arriving in September, Carfaro has tweaked the nouvelle French menu to include more international dishes, all made from scratch. Meat, seafood and vegetarian entrées change daily and have included pan-seared halibut in beurre blanc with saffron risotto cakes and tomato compote, and moussaka with house-made tomato sauce. There are always soups, salads, sandwiches, croissants and pastries.
“We run this as a business,” not a charity, says Antoine. Job applicants must pass an interview, and “we have expectations in terms of work ethics, no different from anyone else.” Employees with IDDs can learn knife skills and use the oven, but not the stove. The kitchen, large and open, gives workers plenty of room and is also visible to customers. “That is very much on purpose,” he says. “You can see that they do a lot.”
There is room to set out more tables, but “obviously we do not optimize the space,” Antoine says, noting the quiet room where employees can relax. This limits indoor seating to 28. Outdoor tables are often full in good weather.
Blue Bears, a nonprofit, operates at a small monthly deficit, adding fundraising to Antoine’s portfolio. “At the end of the day, it’s not about the top dollar,” he says. “Our point is to have people work.”
Several employees have found other restaurant jobs, including one as a pastry cook. Princeton University is partnering with Blue Bears to hire staff for its dining services. Antoine speaks of “a young man on the autism spectrum who is starting to work with us. His mother was telling me there’s been a transformation. He’s bringing language back home. Conversation. It’s very rewarding and touching for me to hear that.”
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