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Blind ambition 

A federal program helps put New Orleans’ visually impaired culinary workers into food service

click to enlarge The Randolph-Sheppard Act helped Pinky Harris acquire the cafe space at the parish courthouse at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

The Randolph-Sheppard Act helped Pinky Harris acquire the cafe space at the parish courthouse at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street.

Mornings are by far the busiest time of day at the Orleans Parish Criminal District courthouse, including the building's coffee and sandwich shop, Pinky's at the Court.

  From 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, Pinky Harris is behind the counter of her tiny stand, becoming a blur as she moves quickly in her magenta chef's coat and matching clogs. She swerves from the register, taking orders and making jokes, before popping back to the food prep area, grilling sandwiches and throwing together salads, making sure the folks at Tulane and Broad get fed before she sends them on their way.

  Judges stop by for a cup of coffee and a chat, attorneys pop in for a quick bite before rushing off to one courtroom or another, defendants and their families kill time until it's their turn in court.

  Perhaps it's her jovial nature or the swiftness and ease with which she carries herself, but one easily could miss the fact that Harris, like the man who operated the cafe before her, is blind.

  The two are part of a growing number of people in Louisiana who are deemed legally blind and are operating cafes, snack carts and vending machines at state and federal facilities as part of the Randolph-Sheppard program, a business enterprise initiative that seeks to help the visually impaired find employment in government buildings.

  The federal Randolph-Sheppard Act, established in 1936, spurred the creation of programs across the country aimed at assisting the blind in running similar vending operations. Nationwide, there are approximately 25,000 vendors operating under the Randolph-Sheppard program, including 66 in Louisiana.

  Kevin Monk, executive director for blind services — a branch of the Louisiana Workforce Commission's Rehabilitation Services — oversees the program and says the initiative has helped place countless people with visual disabilities in the state's workforce.

  For some, the idea of employing a blind cook or cafe manager might seem dangerous. But Monk says it's all about finding the right fit and making sure people who enter the program leave with the skill set they need to succeed.

  "With the proper training ... individuals who are blind can do a lot of jobs that are out there, almost any job," Monk says. "There's no reason why they can't do any number of jobs, including food service."

|Harris' story is unusual because, unlike other vendors in the Randolph-Sheppard program, she cooked in restaurants all over the city before joining the vending initiative.

  After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1998 with a degree in hospitality and tourism management, Harris moved to New Orleans, where she quickly built a resume that includes stints at Elizabeth's, Bacco, Muriel's, Tomas Bistro, Mandina's and other restaurants. From 2001 to 2014, she worked her way through a variety of positions: pastry chef, garde manger, working the hot line and filling in as sous chef on occasion.

  It wasn't always easy.

  Harris says she often was overlooked, and several restaurants took advantage of her because of her disability.

  "The worst was when I applied to Emeril's," she says. "When they saw me with a telescope filling [out the application], they freaked out. I knew they would never look at my application in a million years." Emeril's declined to comment on the matter.

  Harris, an albino, is legally blind. She can see colors and shapes but has difficulty making out fine details. For the most part, cooking wasn't an issue. But reading the food tickets was another thing.

click to enlarge Terry Camardelle bounced from job to job because of his bad eyesight until the Randolph-Sheppard program helped him keep a steady job. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Terry Camardelle bounced from job to job because of his bad eyesight until the Randolph-Sheppard program helped him keep a steady job.

  "I could tell if the basil was black, if the fish was cooked, but I couldn't read any of the tickets," Harris says. "So basically I needed to ... have somebody tell me what was on the order. And in some kitchens t hat works out great, but in others, it just doesn't.

  "Some people's kitchens were disorganized and at times I couldn't get around, I was tripping over things, falling over things, (couldn't) find things. ... But I got very lucky. ... I had several chefs that had complete confidence in me, and I've worked with them multiple times."

  One of those chefs was Guy Sockrider, who first began working with Harris in 2006 at Muriel's and took her under his wing. She followed him to jobs at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel and later Tomas Bistro, where Sockrider now is the executive chef.

"I never really looked at [Pinky Harris'] disability as a disability. I think it just made her push herself harder to succeed. It's a very unique situation that she's done as well as she has."
Guy Sockrider, chef at Tomas Bistro

  Sockrider remembers Harris as a "very hardworking, strong employee."

  "She always held her own," he says. "Even though she did have challenges — there's no doubt about that — she always rose to the occasion.

  "I never really looked at her disability as a disability. I think it just made her push herself harder to succeed. It's a very unique situation that she's done as well as she has."

|To be accepted into the Randolph-Sheppard program, applicants must go through a thorough interview and application process and be vetted by Louisiana Rehabilitation Services "to make sure they can get around safely," Monk says.

  "We want to make sure they can take care of themselves ... and do everything that they need to do to make sure that they can take this step. At some of the locations you're on your feet quite a bit and we want to make sure they can do that."

  Once someone has been accepted into the program, applicants go through a training program that lasts about four months and includes hands-on, classroom-type training, including computer usage, creating a business plan, ordering food products, interacting with employees and other things necessary to managing a business.

  Culinary training also is part of the program and includes a primer on the basic front-of-the house skills. Once the four-month program is completed, participants go through vigorous, supervised job training.

  "Ideally, they'll go to two different types of locations," Monk says. "One might be a large vending bank and one might be a cafeteria." As a final step, Randolph-Sheppard applicants must pass the National Restaurant Association's ServSafe exam, after which they can get their license and start applying to work at vending locations anywhere in the state.

  Applying for a spot may be the most challenging part of the process, as vendors with a good location tend to stay put.

  Cedric Mitchell, who operated the stand inside the courthouse at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street before Harris took over, had the space for nearly a decade before getting a spot at Baton Rouge Community College, a venue with significantly more volume and therefore the opportunity for more sales.

  "I usually tell people up front, that if they are from a more rural part of the state, they'll be dealing with not as many locations there," Monk says, adding that the majority of eligible vending locations are in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans corridor. "If a person is willing to relocate, they'll probably get a location a lot sooner."

  Terry Camardelle, who now runs a vending machine operation at the Pearl River rest area in Slidell, credits the Randolph-Sheppard program for saving his life.

click to enlarge Herbert Reado has run cafes and snack stands in Louisiana for 30 years and now operates an eatery at Federal City in Algiers. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Herbert Reado has run cafes and snack stands in Louisiana for 30 years and now operates an eatery at Federal City in Algiers.

  In his four-decade tenure with the program, Camardelle has operated more than 30 different stands, including a long-running stint managing the restaurant inside the now-defunct Charity Hospital. At one time or another, he has worked at most Randolph-Sheppard-supported locations in Orleans and Jefferson Parish.

  A lifelong West Bank resident, Camardelle was born blind, faced significant setbacks early in life and bounced from job to job, often getting pushed out because his eyesight was so poor.

  "It was bad enough that I was legally blind, but my mother, who didn't know any better, let me quit school in the fourth grade," Camardelle says. "Fifty years ago, when I was working age, you couldn't get a job with no education (and) being blind like I was. But luckily I got into the program and used my learning skills to get where I am today."

  Camardelle, now 69, helps run the Azalea Bingo Hall in Marrero, the proceeds of which go toward the Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of Louisiana, who own and operate the facility.

  "After 40 years, I like giving back," Camardelle says. "Randolph-Sheppard made me who I am today."

|While the Randolph-Sheppard track is the most common avenue for the legally blind acquiring a vending facility or cafe, there are a few other groups that work to place the visually impaired in the workforce. One is Lighthouse Louisiana, a local nonprofit that employs a host of blind people at its Uptown manufacturing operation and helps people with disabilities join the workforce.

"The program has been wonderful. It allows you to promote the image of the blind in an atmosphere where people look at you as an entrepreneur and not just a blind person."
Herbert Reado, food vendor in Algiers

  Freida Holland, vice president of Lighthouse Louisiana's employment services, says the majority of the visually impaired people they work with are not placed in "heavy-duty" restaurant work because of the inherent dangers and difficulties. It also  depends on the severity of blindness a person is dealing with, she says.

  "Let's say someone wants to work in a restaurant," Holland says. "Quite often what we can do is maybe find a position for them where they are in a more secluded or safe area. Some people may not need that; it just depends on their vision."

  Placement in a restaurant also depends on how comfortable an employer is with having a blind person work in their kitchen.

  "I think that there is a job out there for everyone," Holland says. "But it's really important to make the right match ... at restaurants, there can be a lot of obstacles — there's grease on the floor ... slippery mats ... things get broken a lot of the time."

  Like Harris, Herbert Reado is albino. At 55, Reado is another lifetime member of the Randolph-Sheppard program and has spent the past 30 years managing cafes and food stands all over Louisiana. The experience, he says, has allowed him to be a business owner many times over.

  Reado took an early interest in cooking and worked a job flipping burgers while in high school, but said he realized he'd have a hard time succeeding at a higher level without more education, which eventually drew him to the Randolph-Sheppard option.

click to enlarge Pinky Harris serves her last customer of the day at her Pinky's at the Court cafe at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Pinky Harris serves her last customer of the day at her Pinky's at the Court cafe at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

  "I liked the business aspect of it, and I always kind of pictured me being the boss," he says.

  Reado operates a small cafe and snack stand at Federal City in Algiers, but has spent the majority of his career operating stands in the Baton Rouge area, where he lives with his wife.

  "The program has been wonderful," Reado says. "It allows you to promote the image of the blind in an atmosphere where people look at you as an entrepreneur and not just a blind person."

|In 2011 Harris decided to make a change. She was nearing 40, her eyesight had begun to deteriorate and she realized she probably wouldn't move beyond a line cook position, something that was frustrating both personally and financially.

  "I pretty much hit a financial wall," Harris says. "Line cooks don't make that much money, and I can't see well enough to be a sous chef, so I pretty much knew that I was at my limit."

  Harris applied to and completed the Randolph-Sheppard program, a process she says took nearly two and a half years. After getting her license, Harris bid on a few properties, but it wasn't until early this year that she learned she had gotten the vending space at Criminal District Court.

  Harris now runs the cafe with the help of her friend Marilyn, but does the majority of the cooking herself. Harris' husband Rocky comes in the mornings to help restock the vending machines and set up the coffee service.

  When Harris took over the cafe she got rid of the deep fryer that was there, something she says surprised quite a few Tulane and Broad regulars.

  "I'm trying to go fresher," she says, adding that her goal is to partner with nearby Hollygrove (Market and) Farm as much as possible. Harris serves a variety of salads and panini, including a pressed version of the classic muffuletta that she calls the "Pressulatta."

  "So far, they love it!" Harris says. "I still can't believe it some-times. I'm so happy to finally have my own place."

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