Grand Haven ghost kitchen creates a model for hiring employees with disabilities

The nonprofit arm of Grand Haven-based Lake Effect Kitchen, Eat Well Do Good, operates a ghost kitchen that is providing unexpected perks for its workers. 

Ghost kitchens are food preparation and cooking facilities set up for delivery-only meals. Business partners Mandy Anderson and Aaron Johnson’s ghost kitchen hires and pays competitive wages to people with intellectual disabilities, primarily people on the autism spectrum or who have Down syndrome, although they widened their scope a bit to include a visually-impaired person who’s learning meal preparation.

To give Eat Well Do Good’s business enterprise more public exposure, Anderson will try her hand at mixing and serving coffee as a celebrity barista at the downtown Grand Haven Jumpin’ Java, from 9-11 a.m. Nov. 24.

“It helps us get the word out about our nonprofit and it’s fun making coffee drinks for people,” says Anderson.

Eat Well Do Good wants employees to gain real-world job training, learn sanitation procedures, and gain confidence in themselves, acquiring life skills such as showing up for work on time and learning how to interact with people.

Workers prep food for the Eat More Do Good kitchen.
Earning competitive wages

“They gain a sense of dignity,” says Anderson. “Work is camaraderie. They choose a future by choosing to have a job. It’s still legal in Michigan to pay subminimum or a deviated wage for people with disabilities. We decided to pay them competitive wages without regard to ability.” For a dishwasher starting out, that’s just under $10 an hour, says Anderson.

Their recent hires include students from the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District’s Young Adult Services program and from area high schools, who work as interns for a semester or two and then move on when their school program ends.

Then there are traditional employees, some of whom Johnson and Anderson have recruited from their pool of interns. They work at Eat Well Do Good for as long a time as they want and move on to other jobs if they desire.

“We haven't been in business very long (four years), so we don't have anyone who has been here for a super long time, but some employees that have been with us for a year or two,” says Anderson. “We want to encourage our employees to pursue their own goals and passions, and to make their own decisions about growth and longevity with us as much as possible.”

A personal decision

Both Anderson and Johnson have children with autism, Jaden and Abrielle, respectively. The business owners initially met while serving on the board of Autism Support of West Shore.

They decided to launch their nonprofit because it provided them the latitude to hire more people and receive grants from foundations, such as the $7,000 technical assistance grant it received from the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation.

“We only can hire people on the for-profit side as sales allow,” says Anderson. “A lot of people we work with need more coaching. We’re spending a lot of time teaching while the work is being done, so we need more people to run the business. When running a for-profit business, there’s only so much money you can pay those people. The nonprofit goal is to hire more and do a better job with one-on-one coaching and allow us to hire 10 more people and exponentially increase our food sales.”
Pat McGinnis
Pat McGinnis, city manager for Grand Haven, is confident Johnson and Anderson’s big-hearted venture will be successful and will operate in Grand Haven for the long haul. On a personal note, McGinnis’ mother has enjoyed ready-made frozen meals from the ghost kitchen that were healthy, well-prepared, and delivered on time.

“They’re proven operators and proven outstanding business people,” says McGinnis. “We’re really confident that they’re going to be super successful.”

Collaboration with café

Eat Well Do Good is in the early stages of working with Kenzie’s BE Café, a nonprofit coffee shop slated to open in spring 2022 in the shuttered Crescent Theater at 1103 Washington Ave. in downtown Grand Haven. Kenzie’s BE Café has a similar scope as Eat Well Do Good in that it also will employ individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Nothing has been nailed down,” Anderson says of working with the café. “We talked about doing fundraising together or baked goods we’d sell at the BE Café.”

Anderson says she hopes Eat Well Do Good and Kenzie’s BE Café will motivate others to follow suit, despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial shakedown. 

“The last couple of years have been really hard on the bottom line,” Anderson says. “There need to be more opportunities for people with disabilities to demonstrate what they can contribute in a positive way. I encourage others to take on employees with disabilities, to hire them, to give someone an opportunity, and hopefully, if they work out, the person will turn into a longer-term employee.”

Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.