Spirit of Generosity
January 7, 2013
There’s a baked-goods café in South Pointe tucked away on First Street, just a block from the ocean. On most mornings, amid the neighborhood residents walking their dogs and stopping in for their first coffee of the day, you’ll find Marc Pulver tending to everything and everyone with astonishing care. He may be sweeping, serving coffee, or bringing in a delivery he just picked up from the café’s production kitchen in Wynwood. He’s meticulous in a way that only an owner could be. “I can’t do enough here,” he says cheerily. “I really do enjoy it.” But that’s just it: Pulver isn’t the owner. Pulver is an employee with autism, making him something of a rarity. Small businesses that employ people with autism spectrum disorder aren’t common in Miami; in fact, they’re hard to find just about anywhere. That’s why the little shop, Lee & Marie’s Cakery Company, exists.
“I didn’t realize it was going to be a bakery. It really could have been anything,” says owner Andrea “Andy” Travaglia. “I just knew I needed a vehicle that would allow me to employ autistic adults and let everyone know what wonderful people and employees they are.”
Originally from New York, Travaglia first became aware of autism two decades ago, when her best friend
Gwen Azizo started noticing that her 2-year-old son wasn’t making eye contact with her. Beyond that, he was simply “different” from all of the other kids he’d come into contact with.
“It took such a long time to get the diagnosis. Some physicians told her she hugged the kid too much; others said she wasn’t hugging him enough,” says Travaglia, the frustration still riding high in her voice. “This was 20 years ago, and autism wasn’t really on the map at that point.”
Travaglia was going through a divorce and raising two children of her own, but still found time to become a much needed support for Azizo. Over time, she observed how few resources were available to families with autistic children—especially once those children grew into adulthood. “I just realized that something had to be done, because when these people age out of the system, they barely have any resources at all,” she says. “They often have nowhere to go, and they get into trouble.”
Once her youngest child began college, Travaglia moved to Miami and started buying, redecorating, and renting out condominium units south of Fifth Street. Before long, however, she was flying in families with autistic children from around the country and letting them use the apartments for free vacations. She also co-founded the vitamin-infused, fluoride-free oral-care line Vitacare, a hit with the Whole Foods set. Despite these entrepreneurial successes, she still felt compelled to open a business that would assist those with autism, currently the country’s fastest-growing developmental disability.
Travaglia soon met Yannis Janssens, then executive pastry chef at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach and one of Dessert Professional magazine’s Top Ten Pastry Chefs of 2010. He was looking for somewhere to bake; she had a space. After intense plotting, Lee & Marie’s was born, opening last September.
“[Before we opened, Pulver] called every Tuesday at noon about the job. He finally came in with no eye contact, shaking, and terrified, but he knew deep down that he could do it,” Travaglia says. “He started making cookies, and now he’s doing a lot more.”
“You teach him once, and he keeps getting faster and faster,” Janssens adds. “At this point, he knows the majority of the recipes by heart.”
So far, Lee & Marie’s has hired five employees with autism, whose responsibilities range from data entry to baking. Over in the Wynwood production kitchen, many of the cakery’s treats are baked by 28-year-old
Yohanna Waterman, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University who was trained by the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities to work in a professional setting.
Through their diligence and presence, Pulver and Waterman have forced everyone at Lee & Marie’s to discard their presumptions about the disabled. “Marc [Pulver] has no limits to what he can do. Not to bash ‘regular’ people, but he has initiative that no one else does. It humbles us,” says Johana Otalvaro, until recently a manager at Lee & Marie’s. “It’s hard for me to keep someone here for a month who doesn’t have a disability.”
Most importantly, the job has been an uplifting experience for both Pulver and Waterman. Pulver, at 54 years old, has worked a variety of jobs, including a 30-year stretch at Burger King, where he claims to have missed only three days of work. Despite his perseverance, it was always a struggle.
“I grew up getting teased, ridiculed, and disrespected—even by teachers. I’d always have to go to the back of the line or sit in the corner. I was treated like a nobody,” says Pulver, who has written a book entitled Living Life with Autism: The World Through My Eyes. “At work, they’d prey on the fact that I was different. They’d ask to borrow money and wouldn’t pay it back. They’d just come behind me and start poking me over and over again. This changes everything.”
It’s also just the beginning. Travaglia opened another Lee & Marie’s in Manhattan in December and hopes to expand the business around the country. If Pulver and Waterman are any indication, the cakeries will be staffed by some of the most dedicated and deserving workers this country has to offer.
“This is home; it means so much to me,” Pulver says. “I’m going to get some Super Glue and glue my fanny to this place. I’m not leaving.”