In 2008, two very special events occurred in Larry Houser’s life. On March 15, he opened his first restaurant, an upscale Southern-style eatery Bourbon Street Bar & Grill in Fullerton, California. One week later, his son Boyd was born.
Fast forward 18 months: The restaurant is doing well, but Houser learns his son has autism spectrum disorder (autism), a neurodevelopment disorder characterized by social impairments and communication difficulties that affects about one in 68 children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Boyd’s diagnosis inspired Houser to start the Fullerton Cares Autism Coalition, which spreads autism awareness and supports special-needs causes. This year, Fullerton Cares partnered with Bourbon Street and the Fullerton Joint Union High School District, specifically the La Sierra Adult Transition Program, to provide skills training for restaurant jobs.
“Our ultimate goal is to help young adults with special needs become employable,” Houser says of the collaboration’s mission. Every weekday, about five students from the La Sierra Adult Transition Program visit Bourbon Street Bar & Grill to complete prep work before the restaurant opens for lunch. The restaurant trains about 20 students from the Adult Transition Program. Responsibilities include wiping down menus, filling salt and pepper shakers, and setting tables.
“Those are all little tedious things that provide for a better dining experience with our customers,” Houser says of students’ duties. He finds that employees with special needs add unique value to restaurants.
“They’re very detail-oriented, and they do the things that, typically, servers do not want to do,” he says.
Adult Transition Program graduates and teachers speak highly of opportunities with Bourbon Street.
“The people are very friendly,” Adult Transition Program graduate and college student Alyssa Nunez, 22, says of the Bourbon Street team. Charlotte Dobyns, a teacher in the program, agrees.
“The students enjoy working there, and they’re learning skills that will help them get jobs,” she says.
While quick-service and full-service chains from McDonald’s to The Cheesecake Factory have been recognized for hiring employees with special needs, it is more unusual to see an upscale independently owned restaurant commit to such a program.
Both Dobyns and Houser hope to see more local restaurants follow in Bourbon Street’s footsteps.
Houser plans to present a comprehensive proposal to the Downtown Fullerton Restaurant Association to educate restaurant owners regarding the social and financial benefits of hiring people with special needs at competitive wages. And he’s leading by example.
“I’m going to probably hire one [student] to host for an hour or two and greet people as they walk in,” he says.