The menu changes everyday. From the sea, The Blue Bears Special Meals in Princeton might offer calamari with ratatouille, or baked salmon with roasted cauliflower in a vinegar onion cream sauce. From the land, it could be Moroccan spiced pork or lime-marinated pan seared chicken. For vegetarians, the offering may be jasmine rice with roasted zucchini and eggplant, or kale taboulé with cranberries and parmesan. And of course, a daily quiche.
Whatever’s on the menu, the team of individuals under Chef Eric Wimmer will feed people well, and those people will feel good about eating there.
Blue Bears is Princeton’s newest breakfast and lunch spot, staffed with nine individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to prep, cook, clean and serve. Its grand opening was Thursday night.
Wimmer co-founded the restaurant with his wife Marie and two of their friends, Antoine and Gaud Yver, all French by birth but with two or more decades of Princeton roots.
The concept came to them when Antoine and Gaud’s son Emmanuel turned 21. Emmanuel, who has Down Syndrome, had recently graduated from school, and his parents wanted to find him a job. They sought meaningful employment, something nine out of 10 individuals with intellectual disabilities lack.
Out of a love for food – and they’d always wanted to create a small eatery to share their French fare and “the art of the ephemeral,” Yver said, with others – Blue Bears was born.
“Finding a job which is not a charity job for Emmanuel was close to impossible,” he said. “We decided just to combine this [love of food and need for a job], and offer the ability to have very diverse roles. Like anybody else, IDD have diversity. It was very key for us to be open, to be supportive, to create a place which has dignity, and to offer them rotating roles, the ability to do different things so that they can grow their own confidence and ability.”
The problem, Yver explained, is that people lower expectations for IDD. They’ll give them the simplest jobs, like filling water at a restaurant or working in a job away from the public, rather than allowing them to rise to the occasion. Not so at Blue Bears: although patience is important (Emmanuel used to take 20 minutes to peel a potato, Yver said. Now, he makes a whole quiche himself.) the employees are still held to high expectations.
One employee, Kevin, wasn’t putting in the effort he needed to during his shifts, so rather than give him simpler jobs, his hours were cut. As he improved, he got more hours again.
Blue Bears is a nonprofit. Sales at the restaurant cover everyone’s wages and food costs, but the rent and equipment are covered entirely by the founders. Yver said he wants it to be treated as a business, rather than a charity.
“We want people to love the experience. Good food, healthy food, and on top of this, something more,” he said. “We don’t want people to come here because it’s a nonprofit, we want people to come here because it’s good, it’s beautiful, and it’s noble. We have this combination of the art of food, which is very ephemeral in essence, and the human dimension.”
Daily menus can be viewed here.