Elizabeth Ndungu, left, and Lebert Vanterpool offer training to students with disabilities at Anegada Delights. The Caribbean restaurant is located at 9861 Broken Land Parkway in Columbia. (TBM / George Berkheimer)

When Elizabeth Ndungu and her husband Lebert Vanterpool opened their Anegada Delights restaurant in Columbia in 2018, they wanted to do more than just serve outstanding Caribbean cuisine.

“We wanted to give back and do something for the community,” Ndungu said, and it started with querying the ARC of Howard County to find one person qualified to work in a restaurant.

Since then they’ve also engaged with Humanim, the Linwood Center, the Howard County Public School System, and even customers to offer training to a steadily growing number of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Anegada Delights currently engages eight individuals with disabilities who help with food preparation and cleaning duties. Two are full-time employees, while the others come from Howard High School, Oakland Mills High School and the Linwood Center to get unpaid work experience. The restaurant also hosts an intern from the HCPSS Project SEARCH program, which targets individuals with a goal of long-term employment.

State recognition

Word of the restaurant’s efforts has spread widely and garnered a visit from Maryland Department of Disabilities Secretary Carol Beatty in April.

“We like to support and highlight employers who take that extra step to provide opportunity,” Beatty said. “We’re using this visit to inform ourselves so we can make a case to other employers to show them what people with disabilities bring to the workforce.”

Jade Gingerich, director of Employment Policy for the department, said it’s hard to promote workers with disabilities to smaller businesses because those businesses can feel overwhelmed.

“It does require more front-end effort, but once you train an individual who can train others in turn, you’re building up a capacity that can help you in the long run,” she said. 

Most small business owners aren’t aware of the benefits of hiring disabled workers, Ndungu added.

“There are tax incentives for a start, but you also get dedicated and loyal people and you can always rely on them,” she said. “Employers don’t really understand that until they see it.”

Ndungu plans to bolster her outreach efforts in the near future with a video detailing her own experience to help drive that message home to other employers.

Moreover, she said, it’s hard to find employees at the moment, especially in the restaurant business.

“Restaurants can’t really afford all of the benefits,” she said. “Many people in the disabilities community already have health benefits but don’t have employment opportunities, so it’s a perfect fit.”

In-house development

Vanterpool, the restaurant’s head chef, grew up on the island of Anegada in the British Virgin Islands and developed the menu that reflects Caribbean cultures and flavors. Popular items range from jerk chicken and whiting fish to oxtail, coconut shrimp curry and goat stew, and meat items are halal.

“We make all of our seasonings in house and experiment with new items constantly,” he said.

Anegada Delights recently added a juice bar that features all natural sugar free smoothies made with the simplest of ingredients: fresh fruit and ice.

“That was an instant hit,” Ndungu said. “We’re training one of our high school students to operate our juice bar station with the hope of hiring him when his training is complete.”

Sam Ottenstein, one of Anegada Delights’ full time employees with a disability, has worked for the restaurant for five years. His duties include scaling fish and preparing shrimp, cutting chicken, cleaning dishes and being a mentor to the students that he trains.

“I really like training students and showing them that having a disability doesn’t make them different from anyone else in the community,” he said. “It’s important for them to know they should feel good about themselves for what they’re learning here.”

Added value

Ndungu trains people with disabilities in food service using the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe curriculum along with the Skills to Pay the Bills curriculum from the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy.

“ServSafe is a 16 hour program, but I tweak the curriculum in a way students can understand and take in information in smaller portions,” she said. “They leave here with an official certification, which can be a big benefit when they apply for positions at other restaurants.”

Ndungu has also registered a nonprofit side entity, which will enable Anegada Delights to begin compensating employees who offer peer support to trainees and workers.

“I want other restaurants to know that peer support is an important piece of this model,” she said. 

The Toast ordering system used by the restaurant includes an option for fundraising contributions at checkout, which allows the nonprofit to support unpaid trainees with meals and any professional equipment or uniform items they need.

The restaurant’s training model has proved so effective — and popular — that Ndungu is now exploring ways to expand the opportunity it provides, reaching out to other restaurants, the Restaurant Association of Maryland, and even Howard County Government to ask for support.

“I have so many students that I’m training, but I don’t have anywhere to place them,” she said. “They can’t all be here forever, even though I wish I could keep them forever, but I wouldn’t be helping them by doing that.”

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