Nothing but good vibes at Positive Vibe Cafe

The restaurant that puts a positive spin on our world.

  • Who: Created by Garth Larcen and his son, Max
  • What: “Consistent, dependable food” in a place that also changes the lives of disabled people.
  • When: January 2005.
  • Where: 2825 Hathaway Road in Forest Hill.
  • Why: To give disabled people a flavor of the restaurant business.
  • Dishes: Smoked Salmon & Bacon Dip with garlic and dill in a sourdough bowl ($12.50), and the Oyster Taco with sweet potato, country ham, and Virginia honey with sour pickle tartar sauce and crispy kale ($11.50).

— ∮∮∮ —

Jesse was late to work. Jesse was never late to work.

“He’d use to come to work two hours early,” said Garth Larcen, owner of Max’s Positive Vibe Cafe and Jesse’s former boss. “He could not wait to clock in.”

Jesse eventually showed up to work ten minutes late. A minor infraction to most, it raised eyebrows among Jesse’s co-workers because Jesse loved working at Positive Vibe Cafe, the only restaurant that had taken a chance on him. 

So what happened?

His car caught fire while at an intersection. Jesse, who’s in a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury, hefted himself out of his car and crawled to the nearby sidewalk. He asked a bystander to please pull out his portable wheelchair and his driving equipment. He tucked the equipment into a sack and pushed his manual wheelchair over two miles to work. He was just 10 minutes late.

“He was scared he was going to get fired,” Larcen said. Whenever Larcen tells this story, he says: “That type of dedication and appreciation for a job is something we’ll never know.”

Yet it’s something that Larcen sees nearly every day because Positive Vibe Cafe isn’t your typical restaurant. It’s been profiled by national media and even led to Larcen and his son traveling to France to discuss how its changed the lives of over 700 people and counting. 

— ∮∮∮ —

At age 22, Larcen’s son, Max, had been in a wheelchair for five years. Suffering from the terminal and progressive Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, Max hadn’t the strength to attend classes at VCU or learn sound engineering, both of which he wanted to do. He discovered there wasn’t much he could do, at least according to prospective employers.

“He went around and applied for a lot of jobs and was not finding anything and was kind of getting beat up a little by it,” Larcen said. “After a couple years of that, I sensed that he was kind of throwing in the towel.”

Larcen wouldn’t let that happen. He told his son: “We need to figure out something you can do, and if we can’t find something we’re going to create [something].”

What they chose was a restaurant. Larcen had owned a French Continental restaurant, The Possibility, in Blacksburg from 1976-1982. He gave the restaurant up to spend more time with this family. “The irony is I kind of got out of the restaurant business because of my family, and I kind of got back into it because of my family,” he said.

The goal of his new restaurant: “We’ll hire some people with disabilities, we’ll find a position for [Max], and maybe we’ll train five to 10 people a year to see if we can help them find jobs,” Larcen said. “Little did we know that was a very short estimate.”

Local chefs helped design a menu, and Larcen took on the role of restaurant GM and executive director of the Positive Vibe Foundation, the nonprofit designed to train disabled students in restaurant work. With the timely help of a $10,000 donation from Target, Max’s Positive Vibe Cafe opened in January 2005.

A month after opening, the restaurant was featured in The Wall Street Journal. Months later, CBS and NBC both ran a national segment on it. Each media outlet was fascinated with what this little restaurant in Richmond was doing.

“Nobody in the country had really done what we did,” Larcen said. Yes, there were some restaurants that deliberately employed those with cognitive disabilities (Asperger’s syndrome , autism, etc.), but Positive Vibe also took on those with physical disabilities. “That separated us, so [we were] very unique in that sense.”

Essentially, Positive Vibe has two vibrations: the restaurant and the program.

The program teaches disabled students from regional high schools1 in a four-week program. “That first day when I speak to [students], most of them are scared to death,” Larcen said. “They don’t know what in the world is going on. They’re intimidated, they’re overwhelmed…they just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

What happens is that they learn how to bus tables, set tables, use the dishwasher, and learn basic kitchen prep work. They learn to wear a uniform. They learn to arrive on time for work. “They get a flavor for what it’s like to be accountable and responsible for what they’re doing,” Larcen said.

Before completing the program, students must intern in the restaurant. “It’s designed as a program to get your foot in the door,” Larcen said. “When I went around and talked to a lot of [restaurant] employers, they indicated that they wouldn’t mind hiring people with disabilities, but what would happen is that they’d give a person a chance and they’d find out that half the time the person didn’t want to be in the restaurant business.”

For Positive Vibe students who enjoy working in a restaurant, they get experience and a subsequent leg up in finding a job. For those that don’t, they still learn the basic tenets of employment. “We simply want to make it more difficult for an employer” to not hire someone because that someone is disabled, Larcen said.2

After four weeks, those students that once looked overwhelmed on the first day beam with confidence at their graduation ceremony. “They bring their families and friends…it’s an opportunity for them to be proud of what they’ve done,” Larcen said. “It is by far the coolest day in my life whenever we have [graduations].”

With the help of the media, people all over the globe learned about the program. “We were contacted by people…all across the world who wanted to know how to do this,” Larcen said. He and his son, Max, were even invited years ago to speak about the Positive Vibe program in France.

“You have to have the guts, you have to get the community involved to do [it], and it can be done anywhere,” he says. “It really has been something that’s affected the world…giving people with disabilities an opportunity.”

But that opportunity for disabled people often comes at a cost to the restaurant.

Some think that, because so many disabled people work at the restaurant, the food won’t be good. But program students don’t run the kitchen, only help with the occasional prep work. In fact, the kitchen dishes out a large menu (PDF) with items like the Smoked Salmon & Bacon Dip with garlic and dill in a sourdough bowl ($12.50), and the Oyster Taco with sweet potato, country ham, and Virginia honey with sour pickle tartar sauce and crispy kale ($11.50), among others.

There are also burgers (like the 100 percent bacon burger), small plates, big plates, and sides, plus the option of catering and box lunches. “We’re accessible to people with disabilities, and I think we want to be an accessible place where you can come in and get a real basic meal” or a more eccentric dish, Larcen said.

But even if people get past the idea that Positive Vibe Cafe has bad food (which it doesn’t), there’s an additional concern: “People think they’re going to feel really uncomfortable having all these people with disabilities ‘swarming‘ around them,” Larcen said.

Yes, the restaurant can be a little oddball to some, but Larcen said the whole idea was oddball, and the restaurant plays up its oddball-ness with events like Tummy Tuesdays (belly dancing done by women of all shapes and sizes) and the upcoming Coach’s Cook Off between VCU’s Shaka Smart and UR’s Chris Mooney. Positive Vibe Cafe merely puts a positive spin on our oddball world.

Larcen said that positive spin has helped his son, Max, who is now 36-years-old. “He shouldn’t have turned 26,” Larcen said, referring to Max’s condition. “I think the last 10 years, the sense of purpose that he had [because of the restaurant] is a lot of the reason why he’s still here.”

A lot of the reason that Positive Vibe Cafe is still here is because of Larcen, who at age 62 has begun the slow process of winding down his role and transferring duties. But before he goes entirely, he wants to see the bar installed at the front of the restaurant and a possible second location added somewhere in the city. He also wants to create a full-time position for someone to place program graduates into jobs.

But he and Positive Vibe Cafe will need Richmond to do all that. How can the city help?

“Eat,” he said. “Just eat. Give us a chance and try us out.”

Max’s Positive Vibe Cafe is located at 2825 Hathaway Road.

  1. Mostly from Henrico and Chesterfield county school systems. Richmond Public Schools don’t have the resources to transport students to and from the restaurant, where classes are held. 
  2. Positive Vibe currently doesn’t have a job placement officer, something Larcen would like to add in the near future. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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