Twenty-year-old José Aloysius Canoy, born an autistic child, stopped attending traditional school when he was in Grade 5. His family no longer saw the need to put him in a place where he was expected to master topics that would be of no use to him. Neither was he interested.
At that time, the tightly knit Canoys would come together and discuss José’s future—what he was going to do and who among his siblings would eventually take care of him.
His mother Gaye was both worried and afraid. She wanted to be reassured that José would be cared for after she and her husband Butch were gone. But, at the same time, she did not want to obligate any of their other children to do so.
To her surprise, all of José’s five siblings gladly volunteered for the task. That settled, the family wanted to find something for José to do, preferably a business to secure his future, so as not to unduly burden the sibling in charge of his care.
At first, they thought of a convenience store since José was in the habit of arranging misplaced items on the shelves when he went grocery shopping. The convenience store idea then morphed into a tiny café, a place where José could learn how to be a waiter and interact with customers.
The Canoys thought it was not about to happen soon, but suddenly the space right beside Gaye’s office went up for rent, and it was within walking distance to and from the family home. It was perfect.
Since this project was for José, the family left the naming of the café up to him. Initially, he was not able to completely grasp what was going on. All he knew was that he was going to serve coffee and waffles. Because of this, he decided that he wanted to name it “Coffee.” Shortly after, he changed his mind, opting to name it “Waffle.”
Eventually, as his understanding of the project grew, he came up with “Puzzle,” since making puzzles is one of his passions. The young man can finish a two- to three-thousand-piece puzzle in seven hours (doing it an hour a day as his days are regimented).
More impressive is how he puts the puzzle together, which is not at all like we do—by doing the edges first. José gets a puzzle piece, looks at the picture and lays it accurately where it should be.
Ciabel Canoy (José’s older sister and best friend, a special education teacher and restaurant manager) sees Puzzle not just as a means to secure José’s future, but also as an opportunity to raise awareness about autism.
“We feel so blessed,” she says. “So many people came on board and wanted to be of help.”
José’s speech therapist Dos de Jesus designed the tasks for José and even invited a few of José’s friends from therapy to come and work in the restaurant.
What was once a dream is now a one-of-a-kind café where comfort food with quirky names and playful presentations is served in a vibrant setting, where autism is viewed as something positive. Incorporated into the café concept is a mini-store of sorts that has gourmet food items that José himself neatly stacks on the shop’s shelves.
A section is dedicated to gift cards as well as arts and crafts made by artists with autism. Having their work on display gives them a sense of accomplishment, self-worth and, of course, income.
Ciabel says that, in half a year, “We have become a community where people with different disabilities are free to be themselves in a place where they are appreciated and celebrated.”
At Puzzle, she adds, customers can experience first-hand what a person with autism is capable of doing.
“The truth is, if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. No two people are the same. They may be similar, but what makes them happy, what agitates them, what angers them, how they learn, how they react, how they express themselves, are all so different.”
The interaction enriches both the customer and people with disabilities. At Puzzle, PWDs and their families are welcome as customers. It is an environment created to make them feel safe, understood and accepted.
Ciabel admits they worry about having “tough customers”—those who are in a hurry, or do not like being seated beside someone having a tantrum. While completely understandable, “we may not be the café they are looking for,” she says.
Her biggest challenge so far is handling her own brother. It has been hard to make José understand that this is a different setting, that this is work and rules have to be followed. Keeping track of all the different things that might agitate each of the special men and women working at the café has not been easy, either.
“But thank God, so far we haven’t had any episode or tantrum,” says Ciabel.
Despite the difficulties, the passion to make this café a success is Ciabel and her family’s utmost priority, not just for José but for the future of many PWDs who are being trained in the restaurant for other jobs they may get in other establishments after their time at Puzzle.
About her brother, Ciabel says, “I know José has a disability, but his disability never meant he was incapable of learning, or loving or feeling. In fact, he is so incredibly genuine.”
“While I am trying to teach José, without him even knowing, it is he who is teaching me.”
Puzzle Gourmet Store and Café is at 1 Comets Loop Blue Ridge B, QC; tel. 0917-5019645 or 0998-9722550