Blackboard Bistro, in former Rosendale Elementary cafeteria, provides career training and hearty fare

At the Blackboard Bistro on Lucas Avenue in Cottekill, staffers left to right: Chuck Kay, Dave Doyle and Katina Hernandez. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The Blackboard Bistro is celebrating its second anniversary this spring. Located in what was once the Rosendale Elementary School cafeteria — now a part of the Rondout Municipal Center at 1920 Lucas Avenue Extension in Cottekill — the bistro serves breakfast and lunch and offers takeout and catering.

There’s a certain nostalgia in dining there for those who once attended the school or taught there; chef David Doyle says they have a clientele that includes a group of retired teachers and former district employees who meet for breakfast at the bistro several times a week and celebrate birthdays monthly. In a nod to the eatery’s past life, the Blackboard Bistro does “Throwback Thursdays” every week, when traditional school cafeteria food makes it to the specials-of-the-day list: stuffed peppers or meatloaf, perhaps, or what Doyle says is the local favorite: freshly oven-roasted turkey cubes, mashed potatoes and gravy.

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The restaurant seats approximately 65 diners, with several seating options available that include four-tops with padded straight-back chairs as well as some low tables accompanied by comfortable club chairs. Free Wi-Fi is offered and a good number of patrons come in with a laptop, says Doyle. The black-and-white theme throughout feels both contemporary and retro; a snappy blackboard-style logo, black-and-white checkerboard tablecloths and the graphic contrast of black “ladder” shelving against white walls decorated with colorful paintings by local artists.

The bistro also does a booming business in take-out. Orders may be placed by phone in advance for pick-up, and a local delivery option is in the works. Delivery is currently available for catering orders; free with a minimum purchase. Breakfast and lunch are served all day Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The breakfast menu includes the classic fried egg sandwich on a hard roll with cheese and bacon, ham or sausage ($3.15/$2.70); two eggs, toast and home fries or a pancake platter with bacon or sausage ($3.50) or a simple hard roll or bagel with butter ($1.50) or cream cheese ($2.00). Freshly made muffins and baked goods are available along with a daily breakfast special.

The lunch menu also includes a daily special and features freshly carved meats on sandwiches, wraps and entrée salads. Options include deli sandwiches ($6.25) made with Black Forest ham, roast beef, turkey or hard salami with cheese (American, Swiss, cheddar, jalapeno jack) on choice of bread; white, marble rye, hard roll or a wrap. (Gluten-free wraps are available.) Additional menu choices include hot dogs ($1.25); egg or tuna salad on a hard roll ($3.25); 5-ounce hamburger or black bean burger ($5.00, $6.25 with fries) and the panko-breaded crispy chicken sandwich ($5.25 or $6.50 with fries). Beverages available include coffee, tea and soda.

And while a good luncheonette menu of well-prepared fresh food at low prices is hard to beat, diners at the Blackboard Bistro also appreciate the relaxed, welcoming environment they find there. “It’s very friendly,” Doyle says. “We have locals who come in every day for lunch, and you’ll often find people sitting at one table who start talking to the people at the table next to them. It’s just that kind of an atmosphere.”

Employees have a lot to do with setting the tone for a friendly environment in any establishment, but what sets the Blackboard Bistro apart from other dining places is that the staff generating the goodwill there are in large part people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Blackboard Bistro is owned and operated by the private, nonprofit agency Arc of Ulster-Greene, founded in 1956 by families in Ulster and Greene counties seeking equal opportunities for their children with disabilities.

Chef Doyle and another full-time employee lead a staff of part-time employees who work in the bistro through their involvement in Arc programs. Blackboard Bistro is a training facility, where its adult employees work in an encouraging environment where they are valued for their work and feel a sense of pride. Employees gain valuable food service skills that allow them to compete for future employment opportunities in area businesses, trained in how to place orders, make salads and sandwiches, prep food, cash customers out and interact with people in the community. “We all work alongside each other,” says Doyle. “Food prep, cooking, sandwich-making, dishes… we all have a hand in doing everything.”

The developmental challenges that the employees have vary, and don’t sound all that different from what any employer experiences in working with staff members of diverse personalities and abilities. “We adapt to what they need to work on,” Doyle says. “I learn from working with them. Sometimes it’s social anxiety issues they’re working on, and doing customer service helps with that. Other times it might be as simple as fine-tuning someone’s fine-motor skills on working the register.”

There is no set time for the training to be completed; one employee, Chuck, has been with the bistro since it opened in 2016 while others come and go more quickly. “Some people find the job is not for them, or they find employment outside of the bistro and they move on,” says Doyle. “We’ve had employees come out of high school programs and gone on to college and living and working on their own. We hope people won’t come in with preconceived notions about people with disabilities making their food; to us, everybody should be treated the same.”

Arc also does assessments for its Discovery program at the bistro, where people come in with a job coach and are evaluated for performing basic job functions (stocking shelves, doing inventory, etc.) in readiness for future employment. There are also people working there who are part of a 150-hour youth employment services internship.

Chef Doyle has more than 15 years of culinary experience. He started his career upstate as a sous chef at The Marriott and Glen Sanders Mansion. After moving to the Hudson Valley, he worked as chef manager at IBM and lead chef at Gateway Community Industries, where he enhanced their café and catering facilities and formed a partnership with the Ulster County Office of the Aging’s senior nutrition program, helping organize the Meals-On-Wheels program for Ulster County that serves 1,500 meals a week to homebound clients and community locations. He and his wife, Katie, a teacher, have two young children: a son, Liam and daughter, Tamzin.

The bistro’s catering menu is available on the website. Half-trays that serve 12 to 15 people or full trays for 15 to 20 people are offered with breakfast items (eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, home fries, baked goods); appetizers (cheese platters, vegetable crudité, stuffed mushrooms, hummus with pita chips, bruschetta, chicken wings); entrées (ziti, meatballs, chicken parmesan, marsala or Francaise, mac-and-cheese, sausage and peppers); and desserts. There are a number of deli sides available and five- or ten-pound bowls of salads that include a tomato-and-mozzarella Caprese or broccoli bacon option. Prices range from $35-$50 for half trays and $75 to $90 for full trays.

The Blackboard Bistro is located inside the Rondout Municipal Center at 1920 Lucas Avenue Extension in Cottekill. (For any difficulty locating the spot using a GPS, enter “Rosendale Elementary School, Cottekill NY 12419.”) Look for the Blackboard Bistro signs posted onsite or the awning over the entrance door on the Marbletown side of the building. Hours are Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. To place an order by phone, call (845) 802-5350. For more information, e-mail blackboardbistro@thearcug.org or visit “Blackboard Bistro Cottekill” on Facebook or http://www.blackboardbistrony.com/.