Restaurant empowers adults with Down syndrome

Health bar employee Cameron Shomo offers Kathy Neuenschwander a smoothie sample at the grand opening. BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

FORT WAYNE — A new restaurant is serving healthy, fresh options while giving adults with Down syndrome experience in the food service industry.

GiGi’s Playhouse celebrated the grand opening of GiGi’s Genesis Health Bar with a ribbon cutting ceremony Dec. 17.

The restaurant is the center’s newest career development program providing opportunities for more than 30 adults who have graduated from GiGi U, a 15-week career readiness program.

Cameron Shomo, one of the health bar’s employees, passed out smoothie samples at the grand opening. He graduated from GiGi U and said the program helped him with his money and communication skills. He also works concessions at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.

Shomo said he enjoys every aspect of working in a food service setting and appreciates the opportunity to learn new things. He encourages people to visit the health bar and learn about the employees and GiGi’s Playhouse.

The café-style restaurant offers breakfast and lunch options, including smoothies, sandwiches, wraps and a salad bar. The focus is on fresh, healthy and convenient food. The menu also offers several gluten-free options.

Customers can design their own smoothies, wraps and sandwiches or choose creations from the menu like the Genesis Avocado Toast topped with goat cheese, red onion, kale, avocado and “everything bagel” seasoning. There are also kid-friendly options like the GiGi Bear Bread – bananas, blueberries, and cinnamon sugar or Nutella on whole wheat seeded bread – that looks like a bear.

The employees were instrumental in developing the menu and play a role in every process at the restaurant, GiGi’s Playhouse executive director Holly Tonak said.

“We want them walking out of this with all those skills. I don’t want them going out and getting a job just because they have a disability. I want them to get a job because they have the ability,” she said.

Previously, GiGi’s Playhouse operated a consignment shop, but it didn’t bring in much foot traffic, according to Tonak.

“We weren’t getting a lot of heavy traffic to keep them busy and to keep it purposeful for them being here,” she said.

The center decided to open a restaurant instead to bring in more customers to better engage the employees. Last summer, GiGi’s Playhouse won $30,000 to help fund the project through Ambassador Enterprises’ SEED Challenge.

The adults at the center love cooking and food and interacting with people, so it was a perfect fit, Tonak said. The food service industry is the largest employer of adults with different abilities, she said.

“It’s all about empowering them. We’ve seen such a big change behaviorally with our adults because now they have a purpose and they love what they’re doing,” she said.

Each purchase at the health bar supports free programs at GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne. The center serves individuals with Down syndrome from infancy to adulthood and offers more than 25 free therapeutic and educational programs that advance literacy, math skills, motor skills and more. Other free programs include Cooking Club, career development programs and free playtime.

“You can come and just feel free to be you,” Tonak said. “That’s one of the most unique things about our playhouse. It’s just open and you walk in and you know you’re accepted, loved and celebrated regardless of who you are, where you come from, and it’s just a beautiful thing.”

GiGi’s Genesis Health Bar, located at 6081 N. Clinton St., is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call (260) 482-7529 or visit