Joseph Chung lived with a form of autism that made it difficult for him to hold a conversation for long. But that doesn’t mean he was shy about introducing himself to new people.
“He loved to meet people and to greet people,” recalled his father, Dr. Peter Chung. “Because of his limited language capabilities, he would say, ‘Hi, my name is Joe. What is your name?’ He would say that perfectly.’”
After years of struggling to find a job that could accommodate Joseph’s needs, Chung and his wife Stephanie had the idea to create a workplace of their own that spoke to their son’s strengths.
“We thought it’d be nice to build a coffee shop where he could work and he could greet people, so that’s how the concept started,” Chung explained.
Thus, Joe’s Table Café, an inclusive coffee shop that provides meaningful employment to the disabled, was born. But six months before the original Burnaby location was set to open in 2013, tragedy stuck when Joseph died after an epileptic seizure he suffered while swimming. He was 32.
“Your son or your daughter dying before you, it’s a horrible, unnatural thing. It stays in your heart,” Chung said.
In their lowest moments, the Chungs questioned whether to move forward with the café without their son. Faithful Christians, it was Stephanie who, in a moment of prayer, realized the café could be a source of good for others like Joseph.
Today, there are several Joe’s Café locations around the world, including its most recent one, which opened in September on the campus of Squamish’s Quest University. That’s in addition to the original Burnaby shop, several cafés in South Korea, and one in the Billy Graham Library on the late minister’s estate in Charlotte, N.C.
“Well, to me, obviously it’s an honour. You never forget your son’s life until you die,” Chung said of seeing his son’s name live on through the cafés dotted around the world. “Having that legacy and then also Joseph contributing to the special community and giving them employment, that’s what is really exciting for us.”
The Quest U café employs two staff members with cognitive challenges, plus a manager who oversees operations. Chung said while there are of course certain accommodations to be made when employing people with disabilities, it is a business run like any other.
“You don’t want people to come for sympathy. We want to make sure we are like any other coffee shop, and, actually, try to make it better,” said Chung. “Our model always is that we’re the second best coffee shop in the world so that we can go after the first and always improve on it.”
As has been proven time and again at the other Joe’s Table Cafés, the staff is typically in it for the long haul, thriving on the day-in, day-out routine of a coffee shop.
“One thing that I find is once you train these employees properly, they’ll make the perfect coffee every time,” Chung said. “People with autism, they’re not good with variation or changing things here and there, but if you teach them one thing the same way every time, they’ll be the best. They do not get bored.”
In an industry that was already weathering a growing labour crisis before the pandemic hit, Chung believes employers in food-services would do well to recruit people with disabilities because they’re likely to get back a dependable, long-term worker who isn’t going to quit at the first sign of a challenge.
“I think it’s worthwhile for everybody, especially nowadays,” Chung said. “They’re talking about a shortage in the hospitality industry. This is a great opportunity for them to rethink their model. And one thing’s for sure, these guys aren’t going to quit. They’re going to work there and they’ll be a permanent employee for a long, long time.”
To learn more, visit joestablecafe.com.