Serving Up Smiles At GiGi’s

A new local restaurant is serving the public, while also providing a service to our area’s special needs workers.

Gigi’s Genesis Health Bar, an off-shoot of local Down Syndrome advocate agency, Gigi’s Playhouse, is serving customers at a small location at 6801 N. Clinton Street, according to Gigi’s Executive Director, Holly Tonak.

Previously, Tonak noted, many of her agency’s clients, or “ambassadors,” as they like to call them, have worked at a store the group runs that sells clothing and other sundry items. The café seems to offer her clients a better learning opportunity, she said.

“There’s not a whole lot they can do in our boutique,” noted Tonak. “but in a food service place like this, there’s constantly something to do.”

The café offers a range of dishes each day, including a salad bar, wraps, open-faced sandwiches and smoothies. Prices for the café’s fare is “pretty much in line with a regular restaurant,” she said.

In fact, one ambassador has become such a whiz at creating new menu items, it’s become their forte. That client recently crafted a mango-strawberry-blueberry-lemonade slushy to sell. Tonak notes it was a big hit with customers.

About 20 clients work at the café, laboring to do a number of tasks necessary to keep a successful restaurant going, Tonak said. That includes checking food expiration dates, manning the cash registers, and even coming up with new menu items for each sales day.

“It’s literally everything a food service employee does,” she said.

Additionally, Tonak said, the café will soon be expanding its reach, beginning to produce and sell boxed lunches for events such as corporate lunches, bridal showers, weddings, and graduation parties.

All profits from the Health Bar go to support Gigis Playhouse.

The agency from which the Health Bar came, Gigi’s Playhouse, was started in 2002 by founder and Chief Belief Officer Nancy Gianni, after her daughter, Gigi, was born with Down Syndrome.

Since its founding, the organization has spread throughout the nation. There are two Playhouse locations in Indiana, one in Fort Wayne and one in Indianapolis.

Other states that host the organization include Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Utah. And there’s even one location that has opened in Mexico.

Gigis describes its mission as changing “the way the world views Down Syndrome and sending a global message of acceptance for all.”

We want to “see a world where individuals with Down Syndrome are accepted and embraced in their families, schools and communities,” the organization states.

Gigis helps Down Syndrome clients learn, grow and adapt to surviving in the real world through classes, learning, and therapies. Tonak said having them work at a public spot such as the Health Bar not only gives the clients a chance to learn a trade they might use to get a future job, put lets the public see what Down Syndrome people can do when given the chance.

“It’s really just getting the community into our place to see what these folks are capable of,” Tonak said.

And the experience will be invaluable when they go to get another job, she adds.

“We’re going through all the training so when they get a chance to get a job, the people will see that they are capable, ready, willing, and able to do that job,” she said proudly.

For more information on Gigis – either the Health Bar or the Playhouse – you can log onto www.gigisplayhouse.org, or call them directly at (260) 482-7529.

Michael Morrissey
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Michael Morrissey

Michael is a professional writer and journalist. He attended South Side High School and Northwestern University. He has written for newspapers in Michigan City, Indiana; Pekin, Illinois; and Bradenton, Florida. He also has written for and edited websites in Florida and San Francisco, California. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer