A Haven for Jose

By Lorraine LorenzoOctober 15, 2017

Puzzle Café opens its doors to special employees


PUZZLE GOURMET Store and Cafe in Blue Ridge, Quezon City may seem like your typical cafe with a hipster vibe – complete with plush chairs, colorful interior, and fancy coffee that’ll look good on Instagram.

But if you time your visit at around 12:30 to 1 p.m., you will probably get a hearty greeting from resident server Jose Canoy, one of the café’s exceptional employees.

Puzzle Cafe is not just a simple restaurant, but a haven for individuals like Jose, those born with mental disorder that affects their social, behavioral, and communication skills – but were still hired to be part of the restaurant’s daily crew.

Learning life skills at the café.

Something to do

The Canoy family, the clan behind Puzzle Cafe, did not expect the positive response from visitors. For them, the decision to open the establishment was something they needed to do for 23-year old Jose, and their way to encourage him to contribute like a productive member of a community.

“We knew that it was going to be hard for us to find an establishment that will accept someone like him. How could we find a place like that? We wanted to do it the right way, and we know that if we want a place like that for Jose, we had to do it ourselves,” said Ysabella Canoy, the cafe’s GM and Jose’s sister.

The cafe wasn’t even part of their original plans. At first, the family wanted to open a convenience store as Jose enjoyed seeing things in order, and organizing groceries on the shelves seemed like a good idea. Eventually, the family decided on a cafe – a nice, quiet environment where Jose can easily adjust and improve his social skills, and perhaps help spread people’s awareness on autism in the long run.

“We didn’t even think about earning when my family decided to open Puzzle Cafe. For us, it was something that we needed to do for Jose. We didn’t want him to be just staying at home and do nothing all his life. We wanted to give him purpose,” Ysabella added.

Ysabella & Jose Canoy (3rd & 4th from left) with other special servers at Puzzle Café.

Challenges and acceptance

It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Jose, who only had his speech therapy for the longest time, was suddenly placed in a situation where he had to carry some responsibilities and was expected to finish tasks.

For the first three weeks when the cafe opened, Jose cried, screamed and even thrashed on the floor because he didn’t want to do anything with the cafe. Eventually, he adjusted, and started helping out in the frontline – greeting customers, asking their orders, cleaning the tables, and organizing the grocery in their little deli wall.

“When we had our soft opening, we asked family and friends to come over and simulate how actual customers would react. We did not only create a script of what they will say, but we also have a list to refer to on what to do when a customer comes in.”

In time, other families who have kids or relatives with special needs started approaching them and asked if they can also work in the cafe, and with it, comes a new realization for Ysabella.

“We realized that the need is there, the need for people with special needs to have a place where they can be accepted and given an opportunity to show the skills that they have been training for in school. There’s not a lot of places like that here. So we accepted them, we placed them under our training and they started working with us here in the cafe.”

In time, the cafe was able to hire around 18 individuals with various disabilities (those with autism spectrum and Down Syndrome) working as front office employees, servers and kitchen help. Out of the 18, seven of them have been absorbed as part of the regular staff with minor supervision.

“They are very much like us! They also have their own set of personalities and skills. There are some who are really good at dealing with customers, who know how to talk, and then there are the quiet ones who don’t talk much but are really good with their hands. You just need to know how to deal with them so you can assign the right tasks.”


Life-long realizations

Although the Canoy family admits that their knowledge on autism and other mental disorders are limited to their experience with Jose, they discovered that it not a “bleak” sentence.

“We really wanted to show that it’s possible for people like Jose to work, that it could happen. We want people with special needs to know that it’s okay to hope and believe that they can do it. We hope that through the cafe, they’ll be able to learn and hopefully someday, they can find success on their own.”

Puzzle Gourmet Store and Cafe is located at 1 Comets Loop, Blue Ridge B, Quezon City.