In the fall of 2018, The Today Show came to Schenectady to film a short segment on one of downtown Schenectady’s most distinctive attractions: Puzzles Bakery and Cafe on State Street.
Puzzles has always been one of the city’s more heartwarming success stories – the sort of place that made buying lunch feel good.
The restaurant’s mission, providing jobs to adults with developmental disabilities, made it an unusually warm and welcoming place, and the business thrived, finding a happy customer base among downtown’s many office workers.
If there was any downside, it was that owner Sara Mae Pratt couldn’t hire more developmentally disabled adults to work at Puzzles.
“We do get a lot of applications,” she told The Today Show. “Something that’s really heartbreaking to me is that so many people in our community want nothing more than the opportunity to be working and we don’t have that many jobs available for them.”
The pandemic changed everything, blindsiding a business that had just celebrated its fifth anniversary and paid off its business loans.
The restaurant shut down last March and has yet to reopen, although Pratt told me this week she still considers the closure temporary.
And while her situation isn’t unique, or even uncommon, it is, in its own quiet way, a sad example of entrepreneurial dreams deferred by COVID-19.
Restaurants throughout the Capital Region have retooled operations or announced permanent closures in response to the economic havoc of the past year. Many are gamely fighting for survival, hoping for better days ahead.
National surveys paint a picture of deep economic hurt and pain, with the online restaurant review Yelp reporting late last year that 60 percent of restaurants that shut down during the pandemic have closed for good.
“We’re still hibernating,” said Pratt, who lives in the hamlet of Alplaus and represents district 3 on the Schenectady County Legislature.
What makes Puzzles’ ongoing limbo so distressing is its human toll.
Pratt conceived the restaurant as a place where developmentally disabled adults would work side by side with their neurotypical peers, attaining the meaningful, real-world work experience that too often eludes them.
People with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without a disability, and the pandemic has made things worse. In 2020, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities jumped to 12.6, a 5.3 percentage point increase from the previous year.
“It’s harder for people with disabilities to find employment,” Kaia Raine, a peer advocate at the Capital District Center for Independence Inc. in Albany, told me.
At the Capital District Center for Independence, Raine helps people with disabilities find jobs, and she has helped people get hired at Puzzles in the past. “I had one person I helped, who is on the autism spectrum, who did very well there,” she recalled.
The inspiration for Puzzles was Pratt’s younger sister, who is on the autism spectrum.
Her decision to close – and lay off her staff – “still keeps me up at night,” she said, adding, “They were a very loyal, very dedicated staff. It’s terrible, it’s devastating. I’ve tried to keep in touch with them.”
Puzzles had a staff of 18. More than half of the cafe’s workers had a developmental disability.
She also tried to reconfigure as a pickup and carry-out restaurant, but it didn’t work.
Puzzles depended on a steady stream of downtown, daytime office workers from places like Proctors, which laid off the vast majority of its staff last March, and MVP Health Care, which directed most employees to work from home around that time.
The loss of foot traffic was brutal, but childcare was also an issue.
Pratt, 30, has a 2-year-old son, and his childcare program, which shut down in March, hasn’t reopened.
With luck, better days are on the horizon, and it isn’t too long before Puzzles will be to announce a reopening date, though Pratt made it clear that she’ll be reimaging the business for a post-pandemic world.
Already, she’s renting her commercial kitchen space to two start-up bakeries, Trouvaille Eats & Sweets and Downtown Dough, and she said she intends to provide an incubator space for new businesses even after the pandemic is over.
I’m eager for businesses like Puzzles to emerge from hibernation, and the availability of a vaccine for COVID-19 offers hope that they’ll soon be able to.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.