Montreal’s Zera Café puts fulfilling work for neurodiverse young adults on the menu

Employees at Montreal's Zera Cafe

Randy Karpman is ecstatic about the change in her son, who has a developmental disability, over the past year and a half.

Daniel Lach, 23, works for Zera Café, a not-for-profit catering business that trains and employs people who are on the autism spectrum or otherwise neurodiverse.

“He loves it; he’s as happy as can be,” said Karpman.

Like others who age out of the system, Daniel was at loose ends when he finished Summit School’s Transitional Education and Career Centre (TECC) and his internships in retail outlets ended.

Then his planned group trip to Hawaii in the summer of 2020 was cancelled due to COVID.

Karpman said that turned out to be a blessing because a TECC job coach suggested Daniel look into the newly opened Zera Café.

To his mother’s surprise, he took to it right away. Daniel works three days a week at Zera, learning useful skills, earning money, gaining a sense of independence and, although often non-verbal, enjoying the social interaction.

Karpman says Daniel never showed the slightest interest in cooking before he began with Zera, which was founded by Eva Rochman in December 2019 as a social enterprise with a $25,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal. He sometimes now even makes simple meals at home or helps his mother in the kitchen.

Zera started with a couple of employees and volunteers in the Adath Israel synagogue’s kitchen, preparing bites for the weekly kiddush. It was just starting to find its feet and get jobs catering small events beyond the synagogue when the pandemic hit.

“We were shell-shocked. I thought it was all over and I would have to return the grant,” said Rochman. “Then Federation CJA called and asked if we could help make meals for the elderly and other vulnerable people isolated by the pandemic.”

Zera moved into the kitchen of Shaare Zion Congregation, and over the next seven weeks the small team prepared 5,000 meals, all the while adapting to the stringent health measures that COVID required.

Through 2021 Zera grew gradually, employing 12 young adults an average of six to 12 hours a week. Currently, there are six such employees, with four or five waiting, Rochman said.

This February, Zera entered a more established phase with its relocation to the federation’s dairy/pareve kitchen. The facility is not only larger, but affords Zera greater visibility and, when things return to normal, access to a broader clientele.

Zera, which has a new chef, now has kosher certification from the Vaad Ha’ir, which further expands its reach.

Zera (Hebrew for seed) specializes in ready-to-eat dishes with a modern Israeli, plant-based focus. Weekly menus include soups, salads, entrées and desserts – available Wednesday to Sunday through

Among recent offerings were carrot-ginger soup, eggplant and ricotta casserole, zucchini and mushroom frittata, pistachio-crusted sole, and brownies swirled with halvah.

Zera delivers in the West End (minimum order is $35) or food can be picked up. Some favourites are available frozen as well.

Rochman jokingly attributes the birth of Zera to her midlife crisis. She had no previous experience in catering or running a business, let alone managing people with intellectual or developmental issues.

After 27 years in information technology, Rochman knew she wanted a career change, and earned a diploma in health and social services management.

“When I got it, I said now what am I going to do?” she recalled. Rochman’s children sowed an idea. Three of them were volunteering with the Friendship Circle, an organization that pairs neurotypical youths with their differently abled peers.

“I learned from mothers what a struggle it is when their kids at 21 become too old for the system; they have no structure, nothing to do and often become depressed,” she said.

A federation survey identified a lack of opportunities for this population, so Rochman set about to create meaningful employment in a supportive environment. Many such young people, she knew, were capable of work that was more fulfilling than packaging or stocking shelves which they are often relegated to.

Prospective Zera employees are assessed by Agence Ometz, which has a supported employment department.

In addition to federation aid, sales and the odd corporate grant, Zera’s funding comes from the governmental Emploi-Québec, which subsidizes the largest portion of the minimum wage.

Laura Harris, 29, said working at Zera has been a very positive experience. “It’s hard to put into words, but I feel I am included and I have a sense of belonging.”

Harris, who describes herself as having high-functioning autism, has worked in the food industry before, at a coffee shop, a restaurant and a school cafeteria. Working directly with a chef and alongside congenial co-workers and volunteers, makes for a collegial environment at Zera that she appreciates.

Rochman hopes Zera will encourage for-profit caterers and other food purveyors to see what these young people have to offer.

Karpman thinks it is Rochman’s enthusiasm and empathy that has made Zera so attractive to Daniel and his co-workers. “We were fortunate everything aligned for us. I just wish there were more places like Zera,” she said.