By Dan Guarino
Something new is being “planted” with care and growing in Rockaway. Bungalow Bar and the non-profit Smile Farms Inc. are working to create new opportunities for people with disabilities.
Recently, Julie Mulligan, a founding member of Smile Farms, and Bungalow Bar General Manager Katy Grey, hosted a “Sips & Stems” fundraising event at the popular bar/restaurant, where Mulligan officially announced the blossoming of their new partnership.
Not only will Smile Farmer’s bring things to bloom in the growing space at Bungalow Bar but Smile Staffers will be embarking on employment and training opportunities within the restaurant.
As stated, Smile Farms’ mission is “to provide developmentally disabled adults with meaningful work opportunities at farms, urban gardens, greenhouses and farm stands where they can grow and sell flowers, plants and produce in their local communities.” They have now added creating employment opportunities in the hospitality industry to that mission.
It started with “my brother Kevin,” Mulligan explains, “who is a resident in a group home in Eastport, New York, which is part of Independent Group Home Living (IGHL), a residence for people with developmental disabilities. Kevin’s been a part of the IGHL family for 30 years.”
In 2015, their brother, 1-800-Flowers founder Jim McCann, got a call from IGHL CEO/founder Walter Stockton. Stockton felt Kevin and the other residents would flourish if given the chance for meaningful employment. But such possibilities for the disabled were scarce. Similarly, McCann’s company had been looking for a charitable cause to connect with. Forming a partnership, they opened the first Smile Farms campus that year.
“Throughout the years, our family business, started by my brother Jim, and now run by my brother, Chris, has been a strong partner and advocate of IGHL,” Mulligan says. “I was a part of the team for about 40 years, working as a creative consultant/content provider after stepping down as Senior VP of Merchandising and Photography. During my consulting years, I started doing DIY workshops at the Bungalow Bar. Being a Rockaway resident, I have known the owners, the Tubridy family, and Katy Grey forever.”
Grey, part of Bungalow Bar’s team for 15-years, adds, “We got involved with 1-800-Flowers pre-Covid and did some amazing hands-on events teaching guests how to build floral arrangements.” Among other community-minded partnerships of Bungalow and parent company In Good Company Hospitality (IGC), she says, “We are involved in the Billion Oyster Project which is helping to restore oysters in New York Harbor.”
Mulligan recalls, “We had just started with these workshops and Covid hit. Again, the leadership at IGC stepped up to the plate – this time for Smile Farms.” First, they allowed them to sell flowers donated from a grower in California who suddenly had no customers. The Sunflowers for Smiles sale at Bungalow was a big success. Next, “they allowed us to film a DIY workshop in one of suites at The Rockaway Hotel that was used for a DIY virtual fundraiser for Smile Farms. The video featured myself as the floral designer and Katy Grey as the cocktail creator,” thus launching yet another successful collaboration.
Now they are ready to move that partnership into the dining room.
Diana Martin, Managing Director at Smile Farms, explains. “The culinary piece is brand-new, as of last year.” Their chief partnership so far has been with Crafted Hospitality, which operates high-end establishments from Manhattan to Long Island. With Bungalow Bar, they are ready to expand that model.
In connecting partners with people with disabilities, Martin says, “We’re saying, ‘These are people with the right skills for what you are looking for, that this is a good marriage that is good for the employer and good for your business.’
“We’re trying to simulate the experience that any other job candidate would have. We’re wanting them to have the experience of a competitive job interview. We also want the businesses to have the experience of being flexible and being sensitive to what any employee might need.”
What do Smile Staffer employees bring to the table? “One of the key things is they’re bringing a dedication to the position, and also, they’re knowing that you need to be there on time, that whatever job you’re hired to do, people are counting on you to do it to the best of your ability. To communicate in whatever way you do, which may or may not require the support of a job coach, which we are willing to provide. That you are there, and you are willing to learn, to contribute your piece and to know that you are an instrumental piece of the team.”
She says that part of their experience is a socialization piece, being part of a team and the practical quantitative skills, and all that’s involved in a kitchen and in restaurant. “And it creates a career trajectory for someone who otherwise might not have had one.” At Crafted, one employee has already been promoted.
It has worked out very well for the businesses, too. “They say their Smile Staffer employees are more motivated, that they inspire everybody else to be more productive, and more committed to their work, and feel that they learn things from their presence there,” Martin said.
“We start most employees as bussers and server assistants,” Grey said. “The training will be the same that we use for all employees.” From there, they can expand into all the other roles necessary to keep a busy restaurant running smoothly. Smile Farmers will also be cultivating flowers there which will grace Bungalow Bars’ tables. “We will also be using and selling the delicious Smile Farms hot sauces this coming summer!” Grey added.
As Martin puts it, the time is right. “We’re seeing such huge opportunity right now, coming from this recession-like atmosphere, coming out of this pandemic. Everyone is struggling with hiring. They need people. They need good people. It’s a good fit.”
All agree, with the Rockaway community’s support, great things will be sprouting from the seeds Smile Farms and Bungalow have planted.
For more information to partner with, contribute to or join Smile Farms, or order their Heat with Heart hot sauce, go to www.Smilefarms.org or call 516-237-4748.
Photos by Dan Guarino and courtesy of Smile Farms Inc.