There’s a lot to inspire warm, snuggly feelings at Pizzability.
There’s the sign that practically elbows you in the ribs like a corny uncle after a joke: “A Slice Of Community.” Get it?
There’s the sensory corner with things you want to touch, such as marbles glued to a concrete wall, to encourage awareness and well-being, as well as noise-canceling headphones to help those who want to escape for a bit.
There’s the pizza made with spent brewery grains and served on plates hand-painted by the special-needs employees who make up the bulk of the labor and inspired the name of the restaurant in Denver’s Cherry Creek North neighborhood.
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There’s the pictures of different kinds of pizza by the creation station so they know how to make them, and the loose silverware in a cabinet because rolling it in a napkin is exactly the kind of simple, demeaning job that in the past was reserved for those with special needs.
There’s Tony Saponaro, a special-needs employee who yells out a greeting while managing to sound friendly, even welcoming, at the same time. Saponaro dreams of being a chef, not rolling forks in a napkin.
“HOW ARE YOU DOING TODAY?” Saponaro booms on a late afternoon.
All that good karma could be what led customers to overrun Pizzability after CBS4’s Tori Mason posted on Twitter snippets from a conversation she had with the owner, Tiffany Fixter.
Fixter formed a brewery three years ago and just recently bought this pizza joint, and both employ special-needs adults. But Pizzability was struggling, partly because people didn’t seem to how how to handle her employees. Some even questioned why her employees, whom they called “retards,” weren’t working in the back.
The post went viral in late July, and people have packed the place ever since.
But that kind of “viral” outbreak, as thankful as she is for it, also worries Fixter.
“A disability is not a trend,” Fixter said. “We are a part of the community. It shouldn’t just be a trendy thing. It should just be what it is. Supporting us one time is not what is going to work.”
She has, after all, watched people take selfies with her sign, a picture perfect for Instagram, and post fake reviews and even “check in” on Facebook when they weren’t there. People are so busy posting that they won’t interact with her staff, so she sends them out for high-fives with hesitant customers. A few customers got mad, she said, because the pizza took a while, and she had to remind them that the pizza takes longer there, anyway, because of who is making it, let alone during a mad rush they weren’t prepared to handle.
250 Steele St. in Denver
Brewability (opening in September)
3445 S. Broadway in Englewood
(the former location of Brews on Broadway)
There’s been a lot of good from the exposure, too, a lot more than the bad, Fixter said. There were days they sold two pieces of pizza until Mason’s tweet, and then there were lines down the block. They ran out of food.
Friends, family and volunteers all came to help. One guy drove all night from New Mexico for a piece of pizza. Someone else with a disability who lives in the United Kingdom wrote a letter of thanks. Many customers DID laugh with her staff and had fun and seemed to love the experience.
That is, after all, why she bought the place.
Well, yes, but also no.
Usually there’s a reason someone works in a job that seems more like a calling than a career.
“I just felt like I was good at it,” said Fixter, 35. “That was it.”
She felt comfortable and had a way around adults with special needs, and so she got a job as a special education teacher in Kansas City, Mo., got her masters in autism and moved to the Denver area to accept a job as the director of a day care program for special-needs adults. A year later, she was fired because her boss thought she wasn’t creative enough.
That lit a fire, and out of those flames came Brewability, a brewery she bought less than a year later. It opened in northeast Denver in October 2016 as the first brewery in the U.S. to employ primarily employees with special needs (they originally said they were the first in the world, irritating a brewery in Poland that was actually the first).
So Brewability and Pizzability, with all that talk of inclusion and community and warm fuzzies, started as what Fixter called an “F— You project.”
Fixter hired Tanner Schneller as her head brewer, then went from being his boss to his business partner to his girlfriend. The pair operated Brewability for three years but ran into increasing conflicts with their landlord and neighbors.
Now they plan to open a revamped Brewability in September in downtown Englewood. They got the keys in August, and this time, there won’t be any issue with the landlord. The building came with the deal.
Schneller, now 30, had no previous experience working with special-needs adults, but now he can’t remember a time when he didn’t work with them.
He has what he calls “neuro-typical” workers as well, but just like at Pizzability, Schneller likes to have the special-needs adults doing everything, including running the cash register, cleaning the tanks and pouring the beer. There are little ways to help them like those at the pizza place, such as naming all his beers a color rather than a clever name. Brewability’s most popular beer, a strawberry-blonde, is called “Red.”
“It requires a lot more patience,” Schneller said. “You have to be mindful of people’s strengths and weaknesses because some of them can seem higher functioning than they really are. You hear people say you just gotta treat them like a regular person, and that’s true, obviously, but as a boss, sometimes you really have to be mindful of what they can do.”
A brewery is a dangerous place, after all, with hot liquids and chemicals and metal edges, and Schneller has to know what they can handle. It turns out they can handle a lot with a lot of repetition and some closer supervision than Schneller may have to give neuro-typical employees.
They are more accident prone: One employee needed stitches at the pizza shop, Schneller said, and they had an incident where someone who was being trained by a job coach fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up. Schneller now believes she was pretending to be asleep.
Even so, a brewery is a good place for special-needs adults: You can’t rush brewing, so it doesn’t matter if they take longer. The only time that may be an issue is during a big crowd that Schneller expects once he opens, given Pizzability’s new fame.
There are moments that challenge them. When Brewability was still going at its old location, a mutual friend complained to Schneller about the time it took to get a beer. Schneller agreed his bartenders were slower than normal but that he didn’t care. This angered the woman until she took a closer look at the bartender.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said.
Most customers know their mission and choose to support them, and in doing so, have to understand that the service will be different. The woman, for instance, didn’t complain the rest of the night.
“It not only takes patience from me,” Schneller said, “but it takes patience from our customers as well.”
Pizzability and Brewability are businesses, not non-profits, and hiring special-needs adults increases their labor costs.
“We are hiring a lot more people,” Schneller said.
That’s because it takes some neuro-typical employees to work alongside the special-needs adults, even if both Schneller and Fixter don’t want their places run by the neuro-typical. Fixter employs at least 20 special-needs adults at Pizzability. Some just drop in and apply, others are from parent referrals and others come from a place that serves them such as Laradon in Denver.
“We move all our staff around to do different things,” Schneller said. “Some are doing dishes, some are making pizzas and some are running the register. They get the experience of doing all of it. We want them to feel as if they’re worth a damn. They can come home with a paycheck and have a purpose other than sitting in a program and going bowling on Fridays.”
Many special-needs adults have a goal to work somewhere. They want a sense of belonging and a reason to get out of bed and earn a paycheck, said Calena Camacho, work teams program manager for Laradon.
“They look forward to it,” she said, “and they’re proud of what happens at work.”
Pizzability’s newfound fame, for instance, challenged Laradon’s employees, but they enjoyed it, bragging about how many pizzas they made during the rush. They were thrilled to be making food and using equipment such as sharp utensils.
“They were overwhelmed, but they all worked together,” Camacho said.
Special-needs adults often find it hard to find full-time work and entry-level jobs, said Celeste Ewert, executive director of Envision, a service similar to Laradon in Evans. It has 25 clients either in a job or looking for one, and another 35 or so employed by Envision to do jobs around the area.
Entry-level jobs may not seem desirable, and yet, it’s “crucial” that special-needs adults have the opportunity to work them, Ewert said.
“You think about the relations you build at work,” she said. “You feel valued and that you’re giving back and not just consuming but actually contributing. You’re allowing them to take risks, knowing that they may fail, but so do we. That’s how people grow. We’re not doing anyone any favors when we don’t allow that.”
Special-needs adults bring something to a business, and Pizzability’s success proves it. They bring a unique brand, and in the demanding restaurant business, that’s important, especially when there are dozens of pizza joints and breweries.
“They do build customer loyalty,” Camacho said.
Schneller and Fixter don’t want to measure success in just profit margins, even if that ultimately will determine whether they can stay open or not. They have success stories that go beyond numbers: Schneller had an assistant brewer who now brews out of his home in Parker and sells it.
“We want to see them do well and move on,” he said. “We don’t want to coddle someone who is capable of something more. For some of our employees, it may not be possible, but for others, it is.”
Fixter has goals that go beyond profitability or being a hot, trendy business, and those start with making the world more accessible. She hopes to take all the menus from places to eat in downtown Englewood and print them in Braille.
“We want to make downtown Englewood the most accessible three blocks in the nation,” Fixter said.
250 Steele St. in Denver. The number is (303) 598-0809.
Brewability should open in September and will be located at 3445 S. Broadway in Englewood at the former location of Brews on Broadway.