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Restaurant with unique staff a runaway success in south-east Finland

Kamu, a restaurant run by people with intellectual disabilities, has been a hit since it opened four years ago in the coastal town of Hamina. The eatery has expanded from 60 seats to 200 due to its popularity.

Jussi Hurttila
Jussi Hurttila busy at work at Kamu. Image: Juha Korhonen / Yle

Kamu, a restaurant that employs individuals with intellectual disabilities, has gained a solid customer base in recent years in Hamina, south-east Finland. So far, only a few staff members at Kamu are paid standard market wages, but that is set to change at the turn of the year.

"It's fun to be at work rather than just sitting on the sofa and watching TV," says Jussi Hurttila, one of Kamu's 11 developmentally-disabled employees. He has worked at the restaurant since it opened four years ago. In that time it has become one of the town's most popular eateries.

The people with intellectual disabilities who work at the restaurant serve customers, arrange food displays, clean up and assist with kitchen chores. They are not responsible for preparing the food. Each worker's duties are tailored to his or her own abilities.

"We want to give them an opportunity to show off their skills in public, where everybody else works," says Tarja Uusitalo, service manager at the Ravimäkiyhdistys association, which operates the restaurant.

Regulars line up before opening time

Kamu – which means "pal" or "buddy" – began as a pop-up cafe in 2012, inspired by Rome's successful Gli Amici restaurant, which hires people with developmental disabilities or who are recovering from mental health issues. It soon became a real restaurant when a local hotel offered it space.

"Most of our customers come on weekdays for lunch," says restaurant manager Jari Kettunen.

"They're usually some waiting before we open the doors. Our regulars include pensioners and construction workers, many of whom eat here every day."

Kamu, Finland's first restaurant to extensively hire those with intellectual disabilities, has been popular among locals and tourists ever since. Last year it moved into a much larger space at Hamina's eighteenth-century Bastion Fortress.

"At the old place, we had 60 seats, which sometimes wasn't enough. Now we have about 200, as well as more space available to groups which doubles that capacity," says restaurant manager Jari Kettunen.

Room for improvement

Uusitalo says there is still work to be done to improve attitudes and prejudices surrounding individuals with developmental issues. She notes that they still have a hard time finding jobs on the open labour market.

"However many of them are able to do exactly the same tasks as other people. Today everyone should have the chance to realise themselves and to do that through meaningful work. The traditional kind of work centre where they do repetitive tasks is outdated," Uusitalo says.

Continued below...

Janika Varkoi
Janika Varkoi Image: Juha Korhonen / Yle

According to the Finnish Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (FAIDD), there are still about 2,000 intellectually disabled people in Finland who work without pay.

About half of Kamu's staff members have intellectual disabilities. Three have been paid regular wages, while another has an apprenticeship and the rest are paid through government salary support. As of the beginning of 2018 though, most will be paid market wages.

Valued praise

Janika Varkoi has worked at the restaurant for three years, her first job.

Her duties include a lot of customer service.

"Customers have praised me for being a good, hard-working staff member. Those comments feel really good. They touch my heart," Varkoi tells Yle.

"It's nice to come to work every morning, because you meet new people here," she adds.

Kamu's staff members spend plenty of time together outside of work as well, and value having a good working community.

"Kamu has its own group of backers who want to support the employment of people with disabilities," says Tarja Uusitalo. "Above all, though, people come to Kamu for the good food, service and events."

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