Off the Menu: Organic Diversity at Jules Cafe
Julia Tanaka left her career in health care behind to open up Jules Cafe in 2011. “I built it from scratch up. It was something on my dream list,” she said. A small space in Burnaby, Tanaka said it was a homey neighbourhood cafe. Her dedication to inclusive hiring was not part of the original vision for the cafe—part of the beauty is how it happened organically, simply because it made sense.
Inclusive hiring was not part of the original vision for the cafe—part of the beauty is how it happened organically, simply because it made sense.
“My chef had been here for ten years, and he’s from Japan. When we started to get busier and I needed more staff, he put an application on a job site that was for foreigners,” said Tanaka. A born-and-bred Canadian with Japanese heritage, she realized that there was a large untapped labour market of recent Japanese immigrants. “A couple staff members were stay at home moms, so this was actually their first job in Canada,” Tanaka said of many new Canadian residents she hired. “They were nervous to come in, because they hadn’t worked anywhere but their home country. [But] they were excellent—they were professionals in their own country.”
Even though her staff had often been high level professionals in Japan, nurses and fashion designers amongst them, many were nervous to work in the cafe due to language barriers. As seems to be her style, Tanaka was supportive without coddling or sheltering her staff. “It’s hard for them to believe in themselves, that they have the skill set,” she said. “They’re afraid of the phone. But of course, we’re a cafe, and we always get calls for takeout. They would say ‘No no no, I can’t answer the phone.’ I would tell them the progression. ‘You’ll start in the back, and then come out and start to take some orders, and then eventually we’ll get you to the phone.’ I tell them it doesn’t matter if they screw up or make a mistake. Ask [the customer] to repeat the order, make sure you get the details, and if you get into a snag just call me out.”
Tanaka said that a staff member’s first few calls are nerve wracking, and they don’t want to say much more than the initial greeting. “But slowly, you see them develop, and they have absolutely no problem,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Phone’s ringing? I have it.’” Tanaka’s staff found the phone to be very helpful with English language development, since conversing without a face or lips to read is extremely difficult. “To see that growth was great,” Tanaka said.
Beyond new immigrants, Tanaka also made her cafe a safe and inviting space for folks with different mental or physical disabilities. She urged a friend’s autistic son, Aaron, to drop in anytime and gain “life skills” that would prepare him for upcoming university courses. On top of that, he displayed his artwork on the cafe walls. Aaron ended up working casually on some weekends and his breaks from school.
“From a young man who didn’t really talk to anyone and didn’t want to be out in public, he started to grow and he started to shine. It was really nice to see,” said Tanaka. She used Aaron’s incredible eye for detail as an example of how inclusive hiring can enhance the workplace and staff learning. He could catch the tiniest cracks or chips in glasses that Julia couldn’t even see. “If somebody has a challenge, that’s fine—they have a skill set that we don’t have,” Tanaka said. “He can see these things. People learn from that. It’s like, ‘Don’t just stand around, Aaron’s working twice as hard as any of us.’”
Customers also found comfort in the inclusive, accessible environment, and groups started to come and use the space for weekly gatherings.
If somebody has a challenge, that’s fine—they have a skill set that we don’t have.
This included nearby facilities with folks in mobility devices and seniors’ homes that would come for Thursday lunches or knitting groups. “They loved it because it was wide enough…and they didn’t have to move a lot of stuff around,” said Tanaka. “They could just walk straight into the cafe. We’d do whatever we could to make them feel comfortable.”
When imagining a cafe staffed with people learning English, different disabilities, and other barriers, it’s easy to imagine lots of impatient, intolerant customers. From Tanaka’s viewpoint, this wasn’t so: “The customers that came…95% of them were great,” she said. “They were patient, understanding…it was a good curve for [staff] to learn on.” If a customer came in with a mobility device, for example, other customers would help move a plant or set up a table to make them comfortable. “There’s more tolerance out there than people sometimes think,” said Tanaka.
“The only way to have inclusion is to allow people to be who they are and be out in the open.”
And if a customer was disrespectful, Tanaka had no problem putting them in their place. With a high school nearby, she would often see kids who weren’t nice, even to each other. “Sometimes I get impatient,” Tanaka said of intolerance. “I [would tell them] ‘You need to learn some things in school. One thing is tolerance and not bullying people.’ They would just look at me. And I’d tell them, ‘You need to learn that. And if you can’t, you need to leave the cafe. I don’t welcome that here.’” Tanaka was fine with having a reputation amongst those kids as being harsh, because she believes that tolerance and inclusion needs to start at a young age.
For employers who want to implement more inclusive and diverse hiring practices, Tanaka identified visibility as one key component. “There’s still a stigma…people are afraid of people who have challenges or disabilities…that [they’re] not going to be efficient” she said. “I’d like to see people with challenges…not hidden in the corporate world.” Tanaka gave the example of Aaron, introduced earlier, who had worked at other places and never understood why he couldn’t be out in public. “I think the only way to have inclusion is to allow people to be who they are and be out in the open,” she said.
Another key component, as identified by Tanaka, is team building and reciprocal learning. “We’re all at different levels, and everyone can teach and learn from each other,” she said. “I think some of it is just reassurance. There’s no harm to having diversity or any kind of challenges.” Tanaka spoke about her own learning experiences through running Jules Cafe, such as adjusting her feedback style towards Japanese workers who were used to any kind of criticism meaning getting fired at home. Tanaka was also big on open communication and idea sharing, but many staff members were slow to accept it. That kind of communication is, according to Tanaka, quite North American, and new for them—especially women.
“I thought I knew about the culture, but I had a bit of an eye opener,” she said.
Tanaka spoke humbly throughout the interview. “I’m just surprised I even got nominated for it,” said Tanaka. She shared a table at the UnTapped Awards with her entire staff, whom she called her extended family. “To win it…my whole team was just ecstatic. It’s a real highlight for what we were achieving and what we wanted to accomplish.”
“My whole team was just ecstatic. It’s a real highlight for what we were achieving and what we wanted to accomplish.”
Jules Cafe is not currently in operation due to issues with the lease agreement, but Tanaka is not ruling out reopening after a break. For now, her story serves as inspiration for any employer wanting to turn inclusivity from a promise into action.
We respectfully acknowledge the work of Open Door Group & Untapped Awards takes place across British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario — the homelands of over 500 distinct Indigenous nations and cultures. We extend thanks, honour, and respect to our hosts for stewarding these lands since time immemorial.