Mubaraka Patanwala
Mercury Staff

Shayna’s Place began as a cafe in Rhode Island built for
Shayna Olerio, a self-proclaimed foodie with Down syndrome who enjoys being in
the kitchen with her mom. The establishment opened a new location near downtown
Dallas and focuses on providing job opportunities for individuals with
disabilities.

The cafe, run by the Olerio family, opened its doors near
the Bishop Arts District on Nov. 2 and is the family’s second cafe, after its
first one opened in Rhode Island in 2015. The cafe is named after the daughter
of Matt Olerio, Shayna.

“I know Shayna does a lot at the Rhode Island location,”
said Chad Webb, the cafe’s general manager. “They have a DJ booth set up, so
she’ll go in and play the playlists for them.”

Lou Olerio, nephew of owner Matt Olerio, owns and manages
the West Dallas location. The cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The menu consists of sandwiches, salads and smoothies,
incorporating Olerio family recipes such as Shayna’s dressing and the Shayna
Shake.

The cafe’s mission is to provide employment opportunities
for people with developmental disabilities. It currently employs three people
with special needs and plans to work with more in the near future.

“I have a gentleman with low-level autism and a few other
employees,” Webb said. “They came from an organization called Bridges from
School to Work.” 

Bridges provides opportunities for young people living with
disabilities to enter the workforce.

“We work with students and teach them how to write a resume
and how to interview,” said Maria Buitron, a Bridges representative.

Job training is provided by the cafe and includes training
for the register, bussing and dishwashing. Jada Ramirez, a part-time employee,
said she enjoyed the training process.

“Everyone was very sweet and friendly,” Ramirez said. “The
managers even helped me organize my schedule with school and work.”

For the employees with special needs, Webb arranges
additional training on an individual basis.

“Shayna’s is inclusive, open minded and friendly,” Buitron
said. “It is an ideal place — you want anybody regardless of disability to work
there.”

Representatives from Bridges stay in contact with the
students throughout the process to ensure the transition from school to work is
smooth.

Webb said the organization regularly checks in with the cafe
and its employees to ensure a strong partnership and work environment. Weekly
reviews last until a student has reached three to six months working on a job.
Bridges has an 84 percent job retention rate among their candidates.

“Now that they are working, we’ll keep in touch with the
students and employers for about a year or longer,” Buitron said. “We like to
turn these job opportunities into career opportunities.”

Andrea Winn, opening manager at Shayna’s Place, said the
employees with special needs go the extra mile.

“I find so far that the employees with special needs want to
work harder and work more,” Winn said. “They ask for help and are willing to
learn even if it takes them a little longer.”

Though the cafe recently opened, Lou Olerio is already
looking to expand the family business by opening a second location in Dallas
and another site later in Fort Worth.

Lou Olerio is also working to establish relationships with
the wider community. Charlie French, an abstract artist with Down syndrome
located in Dallas, recently agreed to donate a few paintings. Webb is working
to build a partnership with the Notre Dame School of Dallas, an institute for
students with developmental disabilities, in order to begin a volunteering
program for their students.

 “The area’s residents
appreciate the vibe of a unique family business versus walking into another
chain restaurant even if it’s just for a quick bite to eat,” Olerio said in a
press release.