(VIDEO) The Quiznos Sub Sandwich Restaurant at Texas Tech gives students with autism spectrum disorder the opportunity to learn job, social, independent living and leadership skills.
When Janice Magness first had the idea to give her students within the College Of Education'sBurkhart Center for Autism Education & Research an opportunity to experience working in the food service industry, she envisioned a smaller project than some of the other dining options on the Texas Tech University campus.
“The idea was, ‘Why can't we have a little cart with pastries, burritos and coffee?'” said Magness, director of the center's Transition Academy. “We could just set it up in the lobby, then we could train students there.”
But would such a small setup give the students enough experience to competitively seek employment later? Would it be sustainable?
After discussing these and other questions with Hospitality Services and Quiznos, a corporate partner already on campus, the Quiznos Sub Sandwich Restaurant at Texas Tech officially opened in 2015 in the Burkhart Center building. Having the restaurant in the same building where the students attend classes allows faculty to be nearby and lend a hand when needed. The result is a collaborative learning and working experience for young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“It's a working lab between us and Quiznos,” Magness said. “They train the students on how they want the business to run. We help them with things like hygiene, keeping their uniforms clean and making sure they're on time. We cover social skills and talk about how to handle customers and how to handle issues in the workplace. These kids have done really well. They are bright, they understand, and you can tell by talking to them that they've figured out what's needed from them.”
The restaurant is managed by members of Hospitality Services and includes staff from that department and the Transition Academy. Currently, there are four academy students working in the restaurant, three as paid employees and one as an intern.
There are differences in their stories, but they all have one thing in common: they each attribute much of their success to the work Magness and others in the restaurant and at the Burkhart Center do every day for students with ASD.
“My coworkers and my boss have had a huge impact on me, and I thank them for teaching me how to do stuff here,” said Spencer Ragland, a three-year employee and 2013 graduate of the Transition Academy. “This is my family, Quiznos and the Burkhart Center.”
Getting their start
Ragland said she and her family moved to Lubbock from Hobbs, New Mexico, for a very specific reason.
“In Hobbs, there was nothing to help me with my autism,” she said. “We moved here so I could join the Burkhart Center and have something to help me get a job. I plan to stay here for a long time, probably forever, because I love it so much.”
As a student in the Transition Academy, Ragland and her peers complete a three-year program that emphasizes job, social, independent living and leadership skills. The goal is to help them successfully transition into higher education or competitive employment.
Magness said the program typically enrolls up to 16 students at a time. Those nearing the end of the program have opportunities to complete internships at Quiznos and other places on campus and in Lubbock. Before working as a paid employee at Quiznos, Ragland completed an internship at the Garrison Geriatric Education and Care Center, where she helped with activities and interacted with residents.
Morgan Brundrett, who will graduate from the Transition Academy in August, completed an internship at a local theater, followed by an internship at Quiznos. Soon, she became a paid employee.
While there was a bit of an adjustment, she said the skills she learned in the Transition Academy and her first internship, like patience and dealing with anxiety, definitely prepared her for her first paying job.
“It taught me how to get used to some of the things like flexibility and confidence,” Brundrett said. “That's a huge thing for me. I wouldn't say I have a huge amount of anxiety, but do have some. With the pressure, the stress of the rush, oh man, at the beginning, I think I would've ran out of the line and just hid in the back for a minute or two. Or even after we were done, I'd just take a breather. I still do that sometimes, but it's not as big of a deal as it once was.”
Like Ragland, Brundrett's family moved to Lubbock so she could take advantage of the services offered at the Burkhart Center. For Brundrett, who had just been diagnosed with ASD at age 18 while living in Longview, moving was just one part of a huge life change.
“It was difficult for me. I admit I wanted to quit a few times,” Brundrett said. “That was about three years ago. Since then, I've learned to accept that part of myself. It really wasn't easy, but I'm glad that the biggest trait I have is perseverance. Even though I say I wanted to quit, I didn't actually do it, because I want to make my friends and family proud of me, and I want to make others around me happy. I want to inspire others to do more.”
Michael Morton, a Lubbock native who graduated from the Transition Academy in 2016, has worked at Quiznos since it opened. Magness said she hopes to use the skills Morton learned in that time to find him a job as a manager in the food service industry, possibly with Quiznos. But his start at the Burkhart Center wasn't the easiest.
“I'm not coming to this place,” Magness said Morton told her. “I don't want to come here.”
The situation at that time was dire – Morton's grandmother, who had been his primary caretaker, was receiving hospice care because of cancer. Magness knew it was important to help Morton find a support system that would help him after his grandmother was gone.
“I went to his house and spoke with him,” Magness said. “I told him, ‘You come and let's give it 20 days. At the end of 20 days if you hate it, there's no contract and you can go.'”
By the 10th day, she says Morton began warming up to the idea of staying. By the 20th, he had completely changed his mind.
“No, I like it here,” Morton told Magness. “I've made a friend here.”
Taking care of business
Ragland, Brundrett, Morton and intern Jon Bearden-White now spend their days serving the customers who frequent the restaurant. Bearden-White focuses on work behind the scenes, making sure dishes and supplies are washed and put away in their proper places.
His coworkers man the front of the restaurant, taking and making orders and making sure the dining area is stocked and clean.
“Since I open the store in the morning, I have to make sure all the tables are prepped, all the lines are prepped,” Morton said. “I cut bread if it needs to be cut. For certain sandwiches, I make sure the meats are ready so whenever someone orders it, I just unwrap them and slap it on the bread. I also man the register sometimes. I'm usually just making sandwiches for people.”
Brundrett said in addition to making sandwiches, there are many other responsibilities that come with the job.
“Serving the customers is one thing, making sure this whole place is cleaned up is another, and having a big smile on your face and a positive attitude even though you may be having the worst day of your life is another,” she said. “Overall, just try to keep yourself busy and do the best you can to get through the day.”
Each of the students said that working at the restaurant has given them much more than they might have initially expected.
“It has helped me be more independent,” Ragland said. “It has helped me have more confidence in myself and be faster at tasks. It has helped me be more of a leader to my coworkers. I really do love my job and I just want to do the best that I can. I was recently named employee of month and it feels amazing. I feel like I accomplished something.”
Knowing they've done the work to earn their own paycheck is also a big deal.
“It makes me feel like an adult,” Morton said, “like I'm not a child anymore.”
Quiznos manager Mandy Herrera said she was nervous when she first transferred to the Quiznos in the Burkhart Center, but is glad she has had the opportunity to work with the students.
“I met them and since then, everything has been going great,” Herrera said. “Their only limit is as far as they push themselves. I'm actually learning just as much as I'm teaching them.”
Magness said she hopes the Transition Academy will eventually be able to assist more students who can benefit from the program. She said she also hopes other institutions will see the success the academy has had with the restaurant at Texas Tech and implement similar programs of their own.
“It's so much bigger than I thought it would be, but all in all, it's been a real success,” Magness said. “Some schools have done it on a real small basis like I was originally thinking, but because of Texas Tech and the support and opportunities that we have here, it has been a great thing.”
She said while each of the students enjoy working at Quiznos, she also reminds them that the skills they've learned at work and in the Transition Academy will allow them to pursue even more opportunities.
“Because of their time here, they could work anywhere,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I want you to always think about your future. You may not always work here, but has this been a stepping stone for you to go elsewhere?' The idea is for them to get lifelong skills, and that's my goal for every one of them.”
Morton said he is thankful for the role Magness and the Burkhart Center have had in his life.
“I don't know if I'd actually be here today if they weren't in my life and they didn't push me as hard as they did,” he said. “Honestly, if it wasn't for them I might be on the street right now. They've had a huge impact on my life.”