Denver workers with disabilities show their skills

Owner of two restaurants fights to sustain business, which has been declining

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When Andy Ngovanduc describes his job at Pizzability, he makes his workday sound ideal.

“We just chill and hang out, and we eat the whole day long,” he said. “It’s kind of fun.”

The 21-year-old Denver resident, who has autism, is one of roughly 25 employees at the Cherry Creek restaurant at 250 Steele St.

Since opening the restaurant last December, businesswoman Tiffany Fixter has dedicated herself to building a staff of energetic, hard-working individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Fixter, 35, also owns the Brewability Lab at 12455 E. 39th Ave., a brewery with the same goal that opened in 2016.

When Ngovanduc was first hired in January, he worked one hour per week as Fixter showed him the ropes and helped him adjust to being an employee. Fixter now schedules him to work 15 hours per week between the two stores.

“Our goal is to show the public what’s possible and showcase the abilities that my staff has,” she said.

But, after a positive start, Fixter now feels she’s in a fight to keep her businesses alive.

Pizzability and Brewability attracted a fair amount of customers at first, she said, in part because of mainstream media covering the stores and videos going viral online. However, the number of customers has started to decline as online conversation about the businesses has faded.

Spreading the word about her businesses has become difficult, she said, now that she must oversee two stores instead of one.

“There’re days that we’re selling one slice,” she said. “We just need customers.”

Finances have been further complicated now that Fixter must move Brewability to a new location.

Mark Polatsek, who manages the property, said the brewery is being removed from its lease because it is a retail business and he feels it does not fit in with other tenants of the property, which is an industrial park.

Despite the challenges, Fixter said she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to help the employees and customers who inspired her to start her businesses.

Uplifting community

Intent on creating a positive dining experience for customers with disabilities, Fixter has undertaken a variety of inclusive endeavors, such as enhancing ADA accessibility, adding Braille to written materials and providing weighted utensils for those with limited mobility.

Fixter also spends every workday at one of the two stores, from opening to closing.

“She takes a lot on just so we can be here,” said Tony Saponaro, 28, who works at both restaurants.

For Saponaro, who has a developmental disability and is hearing-impaired, these jobs have provided an uplifting community he has never experienced in another job.

“I’ve been around very abusive employers before, at things that no one in their right mind would stay at,” he said. “But it’s the best I had at the time.”

He heard about Brewability from a friend’s parents, who suggested he apply for a position there.

“I just wanted a good person managing me who cared about my safety and cared that I was happy,” he said. “I met Tiffany and I’m like, 'I don’t care how hard it is. I like my boss.’”

“We make sure we’re here to support them,” Fixter said. “I’m still their boss, but there’s that extra level because of what we’re doing.”

Determined to help her employees build life skills, she said she rarely views a challenge as too difficult for them.

“Most people would never consider handing them a butcher knife, but we do,” she said. “We have safety measures in place that prevent them from getting injured.”

In addition to developing a long list of cooking and cleaning skills, Ngovanduc and Saponaro have forged friendships with co-workers and customers.

“There’s a lot of cool people that come here,” Saponaro said. “Because of the environment we’re at, every once in a while, you just get lucky sometimes.”

Becoming part of the team

To build her team of employees, Fixter utilizes several methods, including receiving referrals from the parents of prospective workers and partnering with organizations.

One such organization is Laradon, a Denver nonprofit that assists individuals with disabilities as they pursue educational and employment opportunities.

According to Alison Roth, Laradon’s communications manager, the organization serves nearly 7,000 children and adults every year.

“We really like to focus on each individual’s personal goal,” she said.

Through Laradon, several individuals sent in video resumes to Pizzability, where they now work in groups of five every Thursday and Friday.

“They absolutely love it,” Roth said. “This is really good training for them.”

Fixter encourages anyone interested in working at the restaurant to come with a great attitude and be prepared to work hard.

“I’m looking for people who are over 21, are outgoing and are willing to do a little bit of everything,” she said.

Saponaro offered similar advice.

“I think if you’re willing to work hard and you’re willing to accept challenges,” he said, “it’s the right place for you.”

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