By Mecca Ray Rouse | Published September 2018

A pretzel, a need for a more integrated working environment for people with disabilities, the love Jim and Catherine Evangelista have for each other and their work: These were the perfect ingredients to make Reality Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that provides job skills for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Jim and Catherine met in 2009 while teaching for the Lane Education Service District. They were working in a transition classroom, where people ages 18 to 21 with developmental disabilities can acquire basic skills to be as independent as possible. These include learning how to use public transportation and prepare their own meals, or building up social skills and skills to hold down a job.

They found that these young adults were working very basic jobs with little pay and little success after the transition class. They saw a need for a more authentic and effective training program involving people with and without disabilities. “We wanted to create something more integrated and a little more creative,” Catherine says.

They ended up leaving their jobs and pooling their life savings to start Reality Kitchen. Jim and Catherine worked hard to articulate their vision of creating a new kind of community-inclusive atmosphere, but this was new territory. “There wasn’t a handbook to describe what this looks like,” Jim says, “which made it really challenging.”

In 2008, Oregon passed the Employment First Initiative, and its philosophy and policy that integrated jobs be a priority for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities helped get the community on board, giving Jim and Catherine hope for Reality Kitchen.

Still crafting their vision, they got their first location in 2011 in the Whiteaker neighborhood. Although the space was tiny, Jim and Catherine made the most of it, with live music, open-mic nights, and community events. Their biggest celebration was Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday in 2012.

In 2013, they connected with a baker on River Road who made authentic Bavarian pretzels and wholesale bakery items. The bakery had been struggling for some time and the owner was ready to sell. Despite not knowing anything about running a business or a bakery, Jim and Catherine decided to go for it.

“This defined us, and it was a gift,” Catherine says, “and we kind of had to find our way in the dark.”

The previous owner taught the couple how to make the pretzels from his original recipe, and Jim and Catherine took over the lease, debt, and accounts, moving Reality Kitchen to their current location. “We had to learn how to roll sourdough baguettes and bread, and we were here at all hours of the morning learning how to do everything,” Jim says.

Eventually, they got the accounts in line, brought in another baker, and slowly brought in more “supported staff” (a term they created for staff members with disabilities).

Now, Reality Kitchen has 24 employees, with supported staff making up about half. The storefront cafe is filled with mouth-watering carrot cake, delicious sandwiches, rich peanut butter pie, and, of course, pretzels. Supported staff delivers their wholesale products to breweries and restaurants throughout Eugene. An open-mic night, music events, and social gatherings happen weekly. People of all abilities work together and learn from each other.

“It’s incredible,” Catherine says, “it’s been a lot of freaking work.” The couple has yet to take a paycheck for the work they do seven days a week, but being able to see the transformation their students go through and watching the community push aside certain stigmas has been more than enough reward.

“Families will come in and be in tears, saying how much this means to them and to their son or daughter,” Catherine says.

There’s no set timeline for supported staff employment at the bakery. Some of these individuals will need to take baby steps while others are already well on their way to independence. Catherine and Jim love seeing each supported staff member gain self-confidence, learn from and interact with the professional chefs, and build friendships with each other and the community.

“Seeing their confidence grow and seeing them take pride in the work they do is so rewarding,” Catherine says. “And helping the community accept who they are and that they can do this type of work is why we’re here.”

Jim and Catherine are excited for what the future holds for Reality Kitchen. Their Pretzel Wagon–which sells coffee and assorted baked goods– will serve as a flagship near the University of Oregon campus, a Reality Kitchen garden is under way, grant proposals are being written for future projects, and they are hosting their anniversary party in December. They are hoping to get a hood installed for their new six-burner Wolf range that was graciously donated so they can churn out more delicious baked goods.

Though it’s been a lot of work, Jim and Catherine beam with pride when they talk about their mission and how grateful they are to have an amazing community supporting them. From buying their baked goods to helping raise the funds to cover their water heater bill, washing their storefront windows, and repotting plants, the Eugene community has really come through for Reality Kitchen.

“For Reality Kitchen to actually be successful, especially at the beginning, what better place than Eugene to really kick it off?” Jim says. “Really cool people in a really wonderful community wanting to support a really vital organization—I can’t think of a better place to be.”

Reality Kitchen, 645 River Rd., Mon-Fri, 8 am-6 pm; Sat, 9 am-3 pm, 541/337-1323, realitykitchen.org