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The Big Easy™ Cafe by Ernie Els opens on The Els Center of Excellence® Campus 

By Merrick Egber 

 The Stoops Family Adult Services Building officially opened in late August on The Els Center of Excellence campus in Jupiter, Florida. The 21,000-square-foot building is a place for adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to access the essential support and services needed during the transition to adulthood years and throughout life as an adult. 

 The building offers a range of specialized vocational labs and rooms, including the Stanley Black & Decker vocational training lab, the Sea of Possibilities Microbusiness, a sensory lounge, a hospitality & life skills suite, a grocery vocational lab, dedicated therapy rooms, and the Big Easy™ Cafe by Ernie Els. 

With a lot of excitement around the cafe opening, I sat down with the general manager, Jen Wilson, to learn about her background and hopes for the cafe. 

Can you explain to us your background before working here? 

 “I grew up on a farm in New York, and food and family were always super important to me. I learned how to cook at an early age with my mother, and while I have a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Studies from Skidmore College, my passion is in the kitchen. Once I finished college, I attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. I worked in various hotels and restaurants before joining my husband to work alongside him at the Lazy Loggerhead Café in Jupiter.” 

How did you start your association with the Els for Autism Foundation®? 

 “I became associated with Els for Autism® because Karen Roberts, the Human Resources Generalist, lives next door to one of my sisters. She had known of our restaurant, and I was hired shortly after as the café manager.” 

 Can you explain the concept of the cafe inside the Stoops Family Adult Services Building? 

 “The concept of a cafe is to provide a fresh & healthy menu with a warm, comfortable cafe environment for staff, parents, students, clients, and guests of Els for Autism. We will focus on the autistic diet by serving gluten-free, dairy-free, and low-sugar-style foods with other delicious selections. After we have our systems in place, we will work with autistic adults in several capacities to help them develop skills to support finding employment in culinary and hospitality. I aim to empower them to make thoughtful and valuable contributions within our café, at home, and in the community.” 

What would be your favorite dish to serve in the cafe? 

 “We begin menu testing and plating this week, where we will be taking pictures of all the items for the menu on the Toast Point of Sale System. My favorite things to make are usually very colorful and flavorful. While they will always have the same ingredients, I can be creative and have fun. But if I had to pick one dish as my favorite, it would be the tropical fruit salad.” 

What are your hopes and dreams for the cafe? 

 “My hopes and dreams are simple: to create delicious, flavorful food at reasonable prices with kind, thoughtful service. It is the magic formula for keeping customers and turning them into loyal patrons.” 

What would be your advice for running a restaurant, especially employing people with autism? 

 “Years ago, my husband, Brian, and I started watching Hard Knocks on HBO. Every season, it follows an NFL team during preseason (this season was the NY Jets), where it gives you a window into what it is like to be a player, an owner, and a coach inside a specific pro football organization. In any restaurant, consistency is one of the hardest things to achieve and maintain. You must wake up daily to do the work and inspire your team to do it with you, learning to exercise balance, timing, and maturity while wearing many hats. In last week’s episode of Hard Knocks, one of the coaches quotes Vince Lombardi’s famous words: ‘Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.’”  

The Big Easy™ Café by Ernie Els will be open for all who will come on-campus on Monday, September 11, and will serve a variety of breakfast, lunch, and smoothie items plus a kid’s menu from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  

Many thanks to Jen Wilson for participating in this interview, and I hope she will serve, along with her husband, Brian, many tasty treats for years to come!