Ada's trains those with disabilities to make great food


People can expect "really delicious food" from Ada's, the café that will open with the new Mitchell Park Community Center early next year, says founder Kathleen Foley-Hughes.

The longtime Palo Alto resident and mother of four knows her way around a kitchen, having catered Academy Award parties and diplomatic events.

But Ada's — to be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. — is a startup enterprise with an unusual mission: employing people with disabilities to prepare and serve great food.

"Our goal is to bring people together that usually don't have an opportunity to connect," Hughes said.

With the community center opening a year behind schedule, Ada's team members have been biding their time, honing their skills and earning money through catering jobs, including gigs at the Italian Consulate in San Francisco and a recent Portola Valley reception featuring environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

On a recent Saturday in Ada's gleaming industrial kitchen in Mountain View not far from Mitchell Park, Hughes and four employees wearing kitchen gloves were prepping for a 50-person event they were to cater the following day.

Standing at a stainless-steel counter, Karina Nolan and Monika Pinter were hollowing out mushrooms to make room for stuffing.

Linda Linker was sautéing a giant pan of onions she had chopped.

Chris Ferkol had cleaned and stemmed the mushrooms, as well as removed the sausage from its casings, and Champ Pederson had shredded quantities of Asiago cheese.

"I'm Kathleen's guy," the genial Pederson said. "She tells me what to do."

Next on the list was starting the mini chocolate-chip cookies — one of three dessert choices on Sunday's menu — and Hughes supervised as Ferkol and Pederson broke the eggs and kept the count.

"One batch will make seven dozen cookies and we're going to double it, so how much is that?" Hughes asked. With some effort, one of the cooks came to the right answer.

Among other items on Sunday's menu were shots of tomato soup, roast sweet baby pepper stuffed with quinoa and feta, organic baby spinach salad with Fuyu persimmons and Bartlett pears, shrimp with three dipping sauces, mini empanadas, crostini with blue cheese and fig jam and mini eggplant Parmesan sandwiches.

In winning the city's Mitchell Park café contract against established brands, Hughes could point to her own catering experience as well as her more recent work in training and managing special education students at Terman Middle School and Gunn High School in opening small cafes to serve teachers and staff.

She launched the school ventures when one of her sons, Charlie, was a special education student, as a way to engage those students in the larger Terman and Gunn communities.

The experience, she said, "made me realize that this blending of young people with people with disabilities could really work when it's around this common goal of making something delicious to eat and serving it.

"When they were empowered to do that it was truly a magical experience for everybody, so that's when I realized we needed to bring this to the public."

The work is challenging, to be sure.

While most people can complete the training for a California Food Handler's Certificate in two hours, Hughes says it takes her employees with disabilities a lot more time.

"We go through each item and do a manual demonstration of what's being talked about, practice washing hands for 20 seconds. ... They really have it ingrained in them. We spend a lot of time on kitchen-equipment safety and knife skills as well." Employees with certain disabilities do not use knives at all.

"It takes a lot longer, but it's do-able. It just takes more time." Many workers are adept at repetitive tasks and, with practice, they get faster, she said.

With the goals of "commercial success, community values and compassionate employment," Hughes and her husband, Tony, calculate it will take two and a half years — once Ada's Café actually opens — for the nonprofit venture to break even.

Disabled and non-disabled employees will have wage-paying full- or part-time employment and other local students will have volunteer opportunities. Hughes herself will remain the unpaid CEO.

To purchase kitchen equipment, Hughes has raised funds from the community, including the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, which last year awarded Ada's $25,000.

The café's name, she said, has a double meaning as the acronym for the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as the name of one of her role models, the grandmother of a childhood friend in Pittsburgh, Penn.

When Ada's Cafe opens, Hughes promised, it will be "warm and welcoming — feeding delicious food to everybody who walks in," just like Ada did.

• Read more about the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund by going to

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Like this comment
Posted by Stephanie M.
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 24, 2013 at 9:02 pm

I am thrilled to see this program in our community. What Kathleen is doing for so many people is incredibly powerful and I am looking forward to eating at the cafe when they open.

Like this comment
Posted by Misha Bruton
a resident of another community
on Nov 24, 2013 at 9:04 pm

Leave it to the Hughes to start this wonderful non-profit venture. In my years of coaching Special Olympics soccer, I had the pleasure to coach son Charlie and met his parents. They are the most generous, grateful people around and I feel honored to have met them. You guys Rock! Cheers to much success in this wonderful new year.

Like this comment
Posted by Wonderful
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 25, 2013 at 1:46 am

Awesome. Hats off to Kathleen and her crew.

Like this comment
Posted by Town Square Moderator
online staff of Palo Alto Online
on Nov 25, 2013 at 9:15 am

Town Square Moderator is a registered user.

The following comment was moved from a duplicate posting.

Ada's Cafe is a wonderful endeavor, but most of all, their food is delicious! We had the pleasure of attending the event last Sunday that they were preparing for when Ms. Kenrick was interviewing them. Wonderful food and the servers did a terrific job also. A perfect combo of philanthropy with what I am confident will be a successful business!

Like this comment
Posted by South PA Mom
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 25, 2013 at 10:29 am

Great story. Wonderful example of true community service.

Like this comment
Posted by Community Member
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 25, 2013 at 10:39 am

Ada's is a terrific organization that we should all support as it is a hometown effort helping our kids here in Palo Alto. Kathleen works wonders not only with food but the young people she mentors!

Like this comment
Posted by Amy Greene
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 25, 2013 at 11:05 am

What an inspiring story to kick off a week when we all express our thanks.
Thank you for the work you are doing for the community!

Like this comment
Posted by Sally Kadifa
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 25, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Thank you to the Weekly for this great story on Ada's cafe! We can't wait to visit!

Like this comment
Posted by Elaine Hahn
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 25, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Kathleen Hughes and her terrific Ada's Cafe staff are, indeed, a true community treasure. I recently had an event catered at my home. The food was delicious, and the Ada's staff members were wonderful.

The article mentions briefly that the opening of Ada's Cafe has been delayed because the Mitchell Park Community Center is over a year behind schedule. I'm not surprised that the ever-upbeat Kathleen Hughes didn't mention it in the article, but the delays at MPCC have caused hardship for Ada's. As it waits for the delayed Community Center to open, Ada's continues to incur staff, training and other fixed costs which cannot yet be offset by Cafe profits.

It would be great if our community would rally behind Ada's to support them during this tough delay. To make a donation, go to the Ada's Cafe website at Another idea? Hire them to cater an event for you! Contact information is available on the website.

Like this comment
Posted by EXCELLENT!
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 25, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Can't wait until Ada's is open!!!! What a fantastic idea and a non-profit I am thrilled to support! I hope there will be plenty of seating!

Like this comment
Posted by Lisa Van Dusen
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 25, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Home cooking in the very best sense - made with lots of skill and loads of heart.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike McKenzie
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 7, 2014 at 9:52 pm

Hi Kathleen :

Remember me. I was your employee whern you first started out. I am so excited for you that you actually opened your cafe. Congradulations. Keep up the good work. I am currently working for Huckleberry Cafe at Futures Explored. This is an agency that helps people with developmental disabilities. I would love to hear from you. [Phone number removed.]
Your Friend,

Mike McKenzie

Like this comment
Posted by Can't wait!
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 3, 2014 at 7:50 pm

I can't wait to spend time and money at this wonderful new establishment. Hang in there, Ada. November will be here before we know it.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike McKenzie
a resident of Woodside
on Dec 28, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Dear Kathleen:

Well, it's been a long time since I've seen you last. Here's the latest I thought I had a job at K-mart, but unfortunately about a month, and a half I was laid off, much to my surprise. The job turned out only to be for the Holiday Season. So, once again I will be looking for a job. I may be reached here at home at [phone number removed]. I look forward to hearing from you.

I wish you the very best of luck with your new café. I look forward to hearing great things about Ada's Café. I still have very fond memories of some of the caterings jobs we did. I still have an Ada's café jelly jar on my book shelf in my room.

Thanks again for everything you did for me.


Mike McKenzie

Like this comment
Posted by Mike McKenzie
a resident of Woodside
on Dec 28, 2014 at 8:13 pm

[Post removed.]

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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