Woodhaven eatery serves more than lunch

Independence Cafe offers homemade food while helping disabled adults get much-needed job experience. Photo by Steve Mosco
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A unique dining establishment in Woodhaven sets itself apart from the rest with more than just good eats.

Independence Café opened at 94-16 Jamaica Ave. two years ago, intent on providing the neighborhood with a homemade meal anytime, but this sandwich shop also affords developmentally disabled adults the chance to earn a living and gain the confidence of an employed individual.

A business within Independence Residences Inc., a Woodhaven nonprofit providing support services to disabled adults, Independence Café employs people who might not otherwise have a chance to get a job.

“They learn job skills that are useful here and elsewhere,” said Michael DeNatale, a manager. “Even for everyday people, part-time jobs are in short supply today and it’s tough for someone with no work history to get work. We help move that process along.”

For disabled adults at Independence, that process includes sweeping, cleaning glass displays, stocking the refrigerator and a number of other tasks needed in a food service establishment.

DeNatale said the eatery employs two individuals part-time and 10 to 12 people on a more permanent basis. He said the confidence one gets from being financially independent is something most people take for granted.

“A lot of money they normally get comes from government agencies. This allows them some financial freedom,” he said. “One of the girls who works on Saturdays, she saved up enough money to go to Jamaica. This gives them a chance to enjoy life and take advantage of what the world has to offer.”

In the way of food, Independence Café offers a vast array of sandwiches, wraps, quesadillas, burgers and omelets. DeNatale said Independence boasts more than a typical delicatessen, with exceptional sandwiches one might not find anywhere else.

Sandwich standouts include the Beowulf, with roast beef, mozzarella and gravy on garlic bread; the Marauder, with a chicken cutlet, bacon, Pepperjack cheese and ranch dressing; and the ever-popular Turkenmuenster, with hot turkey, Muenster cheese, sautéed spinach and spicy mayo.

“The Turkenmuenster is not something you’re going to walk into an average convenience store and order,” he said, adding that his creativity with sandwiches comes from his own passion for food. “When someone who loves food is making your sandwich, it really comes through in the taste.”

Independence Café also gives its more health-conscience customers a place to experiment with an array of tastes and textures. Besides five menu salads, DeNatale said customers can create their own custom salads, choosing from 12 regular ingredients and six seasonal ingredients.

DeNatale said offering a deeply intricate salad bar gives Independence Café a chance to be more flexible and cater to an entirely different crowd.

For meat eaters, DeNatale said the burger bar really sets Independence Café apart. The 100 percent certified angus beef burgers come in six varieties, including regular, cheese, BBQ bacon and the enticing four-alarm burger, with Pepperjack cheese, jalapenos, avocados, red onions and barbecue sauce. They also offer a regular and a spicy turkey burger, which is infused with Sriracha sauce, and a veggie burger made fresh to order.

Breakfast is on the menu as well, with griddle favorites including pancakes, French toast, huevos rancheros and steak and eggs. There is also a customizable omelet bar.

DeNatale said managing Independence Café has opened his eyes to the varying tastes of the ever-growing Woodhaven community.

“It’s always fun for me to see the different and interesting ways people order a sandwich,” he said. “I never knew there were 700 different variations to a sausage and egg sandwich. It’s so simple, but there are so many little tweaks. And it’s fun to be exposed to that.”

But the café’s larger mission of helping developmentally disabled adults is never lost on DeNatale. He said all proceeds from the café help fund Independence Residences Inc. so the organization can continue to expand and better serve individuals receiving its services.

“There is a lot of pride in this type of work,” he said. “I’m proud to have people come in, enjoy good food, have a good time and help others at the same time.”

Independence Café is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The eatery also offers catering, so call 718-805-2505.

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4546.

Posted 12:42 am, March 15, 2013
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