Roo Roo’s Diner Provides Job Skills for Individuals with Disabilities

By Jamie Gillhespy

Nick Ellis has been a Waiver Support Coordinator for seven years, so when his partner came to him with the idea of opening a diner, he had one crucial stipulation: that the diner incorporate a program to help individuals with special needs. This idea became Roo Roo’s Diner, one of Largo’s newest restaurants and the home of a new program that provides individuals with developmental disabilities crucial job skills.

Roo Roo’s Diner partners with local job coaching services to help individuals with disabilities learn essential culinary skills, which include everything from making biscuits and frying eggs to chopping vegetables. Before arriving at the diner, individuals work with their job coaches to make a list of tasks that they can do within the diner. Meanwhile, every Sunday the Roo Roo’s team creates their own list of tasks for the following week, which are then assigned to individuals based on their ability levels.

Ellis’ experience as a WSC has provided him numerous opportunities to work with individuals with disabilities and to witness firsthand the benefits of a diverse workforce and community. Roo Roo’s Diner, however, offers him a unique opportunity to give back to the community. The diner, Ellis explains, “just opened up different avenues. It gives people with intellectual disabilities somewhere to come and know they’re never going to be judged when they walk in the door.”

The idea for a business that serves individuals with disabilities was rooted not only in Ellis’ experience as a WSC but also in a desire to create an inclusive work environment for his sister, Emily, who has Down syndrome and has worked in hospitality for much of her adult life. Ellis and his partner, Joseph Christianson, also have two sons, ages 12 and 15, with special needs, who have also helped to inspire Ellis’ passion for serving individuals with developmental disabilities. Ellis’ and Christianson’s experiences as parents and allies to this community have resulted in a restaurant that is a true family business in every sense of the word. When you walk into Roo Roo’s Diner, you will likely be greeted by Emily, Ellis’ first hire, and Christianson, who is the chef, will be in the kitchen lovingly preparing your meal. Even the diner’s name testifies to this sense of family, as the diner is named for Ellis’ and Christianson’s son, whose nickname is Roo Roo.

One day, Ellis hopes to open another diner where the staff is entirely composed of individuals with special needs. For now, though, he is excited for this opportunity to show the community the benefits of hiring individuals with disabilities. Ellis explains: “Opportunities like this provide skills to individuals with unique abilities but they also give businesses a chance to see how capable these individuals are, which encourages them to consider hiring more of these individuals in the future. It’s a big eye opener to the public as well because the public is not around these types of people all the time.” In short, Ellis is grateful for this opportunity to “integrate the community and to open their eyes to what’s really out there.”

To individuals with disabilities who may be looking for a job, Ellis advises: “Don’t give up because there are places out there that will hire you.”

Ellis has one last word of advice for patrons of Roo Roo’s Diner: “Try the biscuits and gravy. It’s all homemade, all from scratch. You can’t find better sausage gravy around here anywhere.”

For more information about Roo Roo’s Diner, visit their Facebook page.