Eric Wimmer, wearing a starched white shirt with the words “Chef Eric” on it, asks if a guest at his new restaurant in the Princeton Shopping Center wants something to drink.
“My story,” he begins to say through a French accent in explaining how he, a retired executive in the cosmetics industry, and others opened a nonprofit restaurant that hires adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Perhaps not surprisingly, the journey that Wimmer, 65, took to become a restaurateur started over dinner.
He and his wife, Marie, 59, are among the many families originally from France who call Princeton and the surrounding area home. They have lived in Princeton for 25 years.
Within the French community in Central Jersey, the Wimmers are friends of a couple with 10 children, including four who are adopted and have Down syndrome. The two couples had dinner one night in the fall of 2017, during which Wimmer learned how one of the Down syndrome children had aged out of any school district programs for him and needed something to occupy his time.
“And it was a trigger,” said Wimmer, who saw a way to realize a long-held dream he and his wife had to start a restaurant — but one that would be about more than just serving food. On the one hand, he would seek to fill what he saw was a culinary void in the local restaurant scene but at the same time employ as many young people with Down syndrome “as we can.”
Financed privately, the restaurant needed to find a home. Hunting for local locations, Wimmer eventually settled on the Shopping Center, in a spot that had been home to Camillo’s Italian restaurant.
The Blue Bears Special Meals opened its doors May 13, featuring a breakfast and lunch menu with an international flavor. Think baguettes with butter and jam for breakfast — “the way we eat it in France,” Wimmer said.
“But we have dishes here from Morocco, we have dishes here from Vietnam — everything that we like cooking, that we like the taste of,” he said. “What drives us is the taste and the health of what we’re cooking.”
The menu changes daily, but lunches, which include a “from the land,” “from the sea,” and vegetarian option, are $10.50 to $17 and come with one or two additional courses — soup, salad, or dessert. Sweet and savory treats range from $2 for a cream puff to $8 for a slice of quiche plus a green salad. Take-out options range up to $120 for a large “dinner from the sea.”
The restaurant offers take out and has tables inside and outside for those who want to stay and eat. Blue Bears also accepts dinner orders, only for takeout. The restaurant is open Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner orders can be picked up until 5 p.m.
The business is a family affair. Marie Wimmer, also one of the founders of the Blue Bears, wears different hats by helping with marketing, advertising, and also baking.
“It’s very exciting,” she said of opening the restaurant. “Our tag line is come visit us with a full heart and an empty stomach.”
In all, the restaurant also has one other chef, a dishwasher, and two women who handle the register and back office responsibilities.
On a recent morning, Wimmer had an orientation for the first group of special needs employees, who will handle tasks such as food preparation, shelving, bussing tables, and packaging food for carry-out customers, when they start their jobs in June. Wearing black aprons and beanies, they followed him along a tour of where they will be working. He stressed safety and showed them the operations behind the counter.
“This is the place where everything will be prepped,” he told them at one point.
The goal, he said during the interview, is to give them skills they can use during their time at the restaurant and beyond when they move on to another job. At the Blue Bears, the aim is to employ eight to 12 specials need adults, all paid at the state hourly minimum wage.
Alison Seber, 25, will be among them. Having graduated from Montgomery High School in 2013, she has work experience. This will be her first time working in a restaurant, an opportunity that she said she is excited about.
Once Seber and the others are on the job, Wimmer will be their supervisor. But they will have job coaches, either from their home school district or the organizations they get services from, on site for as long as it takes for them to know their work duties. He said the role of the job coach is “to be sure that the job that is assigned to the kid is done, that the kid knows, understands, and does it properly.”
Seber already has been getting ready for the work she will have to do as a restaurant employee. She said she has started practicing by cutting vegetables at home.
“She’s actually better than me,” said Pat Connett, her job coach, of Seber’s cutting ability.
Seber’s mother, Rosemary McGeady, came along for the job orientation. She spoke of the opportunity her daughter has received.
“We’re very grateful that she has a chance to be a part of this enterprise at the ground-floor level from the beginning,” she said. “The success of this restaurant depends on how well they do.”
School districts seek to prepare their special needs students by giving them work experiences. At West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, for example, there are 27 students in a vocational program that provides “job sampling,” namely internships at local businesses.
“All the job sampling we do is geared towards them getting gainful employment when they leave our program,” said Mary Ann Mansfield, a district employee who will be a job coach for one of the employees at Blue Bears. “So what we do is we actually train them and teach them how to work in the community. So when they leave us they have a resume of different jobs that they’ve done already.”
Blue Bears is breaking into what is a crowded restaurant market in Princeton. Wimmer wants the restaurant to be a success. Last year, he attended the International Culinary Center, in New York, to learn culinary techniques.
“We want people to come to see us because they like the food,” he said. “The restaurant is to bring something to the community in terms of food.”
The menu at Blue Bears has something for every taste, liked sauteed shrimp, baked chicken, carrot soup, and peach tart. Marie Wimmer said there is no processed food at the restaurant, with everything starting from scratch.
“Really, what we want to bring here is homemade … something fresh every day,” she said. “We really think … that what we are bringing (to Princeton) is different from all that’s offered here.”
The Blue Bears Special Meals, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 N. Harrison St. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner pick-up until 5 p.m. 609-454-3049.
Jammin’ Crepes to take over library cafe
After 10 years as Terra Libri, the cafe in the lobby of Princeton Public Library will have a new name and new menu starting in July. Jammin’ Crepes, the purveyor of sweet and savory crepes at 20 Nassau Street, will operate Jammin’ Community Cafe in the space.
“In the spirit of strengthening community relationships and supporting the uniqueness of our region, the cafe menu will highlight partnerships with local farms and farmers as well as several local specialty food businesses including Small World Coffee, Tico’s Juice, Lillipies Bakery and Thomas Sweet Chocolates,” Jammin’ Crepes co-owner Kim Rizk said in a statement. “The Jammin’ Community Café will offer casual eat-in and take-away options featuring the best local and organic ingredients at their peak of freshness.”