Like a lot of restaurants, Max’s Positive Vibe Café was hammered by the pandemic.
It shut down in March 2020 and has remained closed, though founder Garth Larcen hopes the restaurant will reopen by the end of summer with the help of funds raised this coming Sunday at Vibefest 2021, an annual music festival (it was held virtually last year) in the parking lot of Stratford Hills Shopping Center.
The event, from noon to 6 p.m., will feature eight bands, food and beverages for purchase. Admission is $10 at the door.
Unlike a lot of restaurants, the Positive Vibe Café falls in the nonprofit category because it is operated by the Positive Vibe Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that provides training and employment for young adults with disabilities.
“The training program is the whole reason we’re here,” Larcen said of the restaurant that opened in 2005 in the shopping center on Forest Hill Avenue at Hathaway Road.
As a nonprofit, the Positive Vibe did not qualify for the recent federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund program, which provides emergency grants for restaurants and bars affected by COVID-19.
“We need people to support us in other ways, as they have over the years,” Larcen said.
The pandemic also shut down the training program for a few months, but when the program restarted last August, it had a completely different vibe, you might say, and not just because of the masks, physical distancing and smaller class sizes. With the restaurant closed, the on-the-job training was missing.
“We realized that the future for food service for all of these young adults with disabilities is maybe not as promising as it was because of COVID and maybe even after [the food service industry] gets back going,” Larcen said. “It might be that restaurants might not take chances hiring people with disabilities as they would have two years ago as they’re just trying to survive now.”
So, the Positive Vibe partnered with Publix, across the street in The Shops at Stratford Hills, and with The Clothes Rack, the Junior League of Richmond’s thrift store across the parking lot from the restaurant, to provide students with behind-the-scenes tours of those businesses and an up-close experience of life on the job in the retail world.
The pandemic “kind of forced our hand into broadening our training into being more customer service and life skills than maybe the food skills that was our focus in the past,” Larcen said. “We all know the bad part of this COVID experience, but there have been some hidden advantages to it as well.”
I first wrote about Positive Vibe in 2004 when it was little more than blueprints and a dream for Larcen, who was inspired to open a restaurant by the experience of his son, Max, who has muscular dystrophy and had trouble finding a place that would hire him. Garth established the foundation and then set about starting a restaurant that would also serve as a training café where basic kitchen and restaurant skills would be taught, on a scholarship basis, to people with special needs.
Over the years, more than 1,600 students have come through the Positive Vibe. Students in the monthlong program typically come through partnerships with local school systems and the Department of Rehabilitative Services. Others, like Jamesha Wesley, arrive on their own.
The 20-year-old from Richmond went through the expanded training program, which included time at Publix and The Clothes Rack. After completing the program, she landed a job at Walmart on Nine Mile Road as a customer host.
“It was good,” Jamesha Wesley said of the training she received at Positive Vibe. “I was able to meet people.”
Her mother, Cindy Wesley, said this is the first job held by her daughter, who has a learning disability.
“It brings joy to me because she always wants to be dependent on herself,” said Cindy Wesley, who appreciated the program’s food-service instruction because Jamesha loves to cook, but noted the retail experience made it an easier transition to the Walmart job. “I’m very proud of her.”
Kathy Schuler, director of the training program, said that in addition to the Publix and The Clothes Rack components the classes now include an emphasis on customer relations in the food-service business: greeting, making eye contact and carrying on conversations, interactions that can be challenging for the students who have developmental, learning and physical disabilities, she said.
The training used to concentrate on “back of the house” skills in the kitchen, but since the restaurant has been closed, “the focus is now more on the front of the house and customer service and what some of those skill sets look like,” she said.
Such exposure could help lead to jobs or at least familiarize students to that side of the business, in much the same way volunteer stints at The Clothes Rack thrift store could.
Jenna Casebolt, manager of the Junior League of Richmond’s two thrift stores, said she was glad to partner with the Positive Vibe.
“It was a great moment,” she said. “Here’s our neighbor, they’ve got a great program, they want to come do work and we’ve got work to do.”
The work the students do includes hanging, tagging and sizing clothes, Casebolt said. They work in the back of the store and in the front, meeting and talking to customers.
“It’s the training opportunity they’re looking for … and we are really benefiting from this greatly,” she said.