By MICHELLE GREEN and Michael Alexander
Updated October 10, 1988 12:00 PM

It is early morning, and the Eden Express seems much like any other unpretentious little eating house in the blue-collar town of Hayward, Calif. The 82-seat restaurant buzzes with the chatter of the breakfast crowd as the youthful, well-scrubbed staff moves about among the butcher-block tables. Two newcomers take a seat by the window, and Sean, a heavyset waiter in a striped apron, ambles over to hand them their menus. “Thank you,” they say. “You’re welcome,” he replies, and he means it.

Returning to take the order, Sean pulls a notepad from his pocket, squints at the page and laboriously writes E-G-G-S. But the second customer wants something more complicated. “I’d like the eggs scrambled on the muffin,” he says, “not poached, and I want them dry.” A look of mild panic flashes in Sean’s blue eyes. A subtle kick under the table, from his companion, prompts the diner to simplify his request. He asks for toast instead, and Sean breathes a little inward sigh of relief.

As the tabletop placards explain, the Eden Express is unlike any other restaurant in America. Sean, 20, is learning-disabled, and his co-workers are afflicted with manic depression, deafness, schizophrenia and other disabilities. Founded in 1980, the restaurant is headquarters for a groundbreaking project in which students like Sean are trained to live in the mainstream and rescued from a life of hopelessness. “We give these kids a chance to start dreaming again, to start believing they have a chance to make it out there,” says director Barbara Lawson. “The majority of them had given up on themselves.”

Celebrating its eighth anniversary this week, the program has turned out more than 400 graduates, 90 percent of whom have moved on to paying jobs. But the Express’s most significant achievement has more to do with pride than with paychecks. In after-work seminars and counseling sessions, Sean and his classmates are learning the intricacies of proper social interaction, grooming, personal budgeting, math and reading—all of the skills they will need in the marketplace. Armed with new confidence, they will have a chance to shake the wrenching sense of failure that often plagues the disabled. “My kids are really proud of me,” reports Denise, a 33-year-old learning-and hearing-impaired graduate who passed through Eden’s gate and now works as a baker’s assistant at Safeway. A single mother of two, she had never held a regular job before she was hired by the supermarket chain in July. “When I got my first paycheck, I was real excited—I went and framed it,” she says. “Now my dream is to move from where I’m living into a nicer neighborhood.”

Not surprisingly, the program has the enthusiastic support of the mental-health community. Wrote psychiatrist and author Dr. Maryellen Walsh in her 1985 book Schizophrenia: “To call Eden Express another rehab project is to call Paris another town, Picasso another artist, and Dietrich just another pretty face.”

The Eden Express was conceived by activists with more vision than capital. In 1978 Sheila Martinsen and Celia Bjerkan, both mothers of children who suffered from mental illness, heard about a restaurant in San Rafael that had once served as a workshop for the mentally disabled. Determined to create similar opportunities for children like their own, the two women seized on the idea and scoured Hayward for financial support. Christ Presbyterian Church put up $25,000, and 300 volunteers helped transform a rundown pizza parlor into the tidy Eden Express. (The name is taken from a book by Mark Vonnegut, son of Kurt, about his battle with schizophrenia.) Keeping the project afloat, however, was another matter; within seven months, the Express was $30,000 in debt and one month from bankruptcy.

When Lawson, 51, a social psychologist, heard in April 1981 that the Eden Express needed an executive director, she was only mildly interested. “I said, ‘Oh, I’ll just look at it. But there’s no way I’ll deal with it,’ ” she remembers. “It was already in the hole.” Then the project caught her fancy. “I saw that I could train people,” she says, “and put them in the marketplace where they were needed.”

A vibrant extrovert with a master’s degree in public administration, Lawson, a mother of three, seemed just right for the job. She had not only spent much of her life working with the handicapped, but she knew the restaurant business as well. She and her second husband had once owned an icecream parlor in Lafayette, Calif. Lawson also brought to the job a profound understanding of the destructive force of mental disability: Her 27-year-old daughter, Lori, is severely retarded and had been institutionalized since the age of 14. Divorced from Lori’s father and struggling through the end of her second marriage, Lawson had fought to keep her own life going while she tried to get the best care for her frustrated, unhappy daughter.

As soon as she was hired, Lawson began soliciting new funds from foundations, corporations (including Chevron, IBM and Safeway), churches and, eventually, such giant charities as the United Way. She established a $2,500 training fee for the four-month program—a charge which, depending upon a student’s disability, is often paid by state and federal agencies. And she trimmed operating costs to the bone. “The restaurant was set up to be competitive, but it wasn’t,” she says. “People in Hayward thought of it in terms of a school cafeteria. I think they thought it was just a little nonprofit thing that got a lot of freebies.”

Community response was lukewarm at first. “We had a lot of volunteers walking up and down the street handing out fliers and stuff,” says Lawson. “But people said, ‘Oh, I feel so sorry for those people, I don’t want to come in.’ The thing that eventually made a huge difference is that we have trainees delivering goods, going to the post office, to the grocery store. And the public has learned that these people are not frightening.”

With time—and careful promotion—the Eden Express established itself as a pleasant retreat with competitive standards of service and cooking. “If we’re not doing a good job, the customers just won’t come back,” says Lawson. “They don’t care whether you’re dealing with the disabled or not. If you don’t get the food out quick, and it’s not good food, then the heck with it.”

Given the fact many of the trainees have spent their lives on the fringes—living on the streets or locked away in hospitals—it’s hardly surprising that service occasionally slips. In ordinary restaurants, waiters only fantasize about snapping at rude customers; at the Eden Express, students with inadequate self-control have occasionally told them off. “Actually, there have been more [outbursts] from the customers than the trainees,” says Lawson. “It’s tough to get the service real good, because the minute a trainee gets good, we get ’em out there and into jobs.”

Trainees begin slowly. Assigned to the laundry room at first, they work up to more demanding jobs in the kitchen and the dining room. Director of training Barbara Cymrot (who admits that she buses the occasional table, in addition to monitoring the progress of her 31 students) says that learning to handle stress is the job skill her charges need most. “You might learn how to wash dishes at 10 a.m., when there are relatively few people in the restaurant,” she explains, “but all of a sudden you might be washing dishes at noon, and someone runs in and screams, ‘Where are the forks?’ Or let’s say you dropped something and broke it. Well, some of these people might not show up the next day because they don’t want to admit it. We want people to work through these situations here.”

A manic depressive who has simply walked out of other jobs when they became too demanding, Jeanette, 31, has been at the Eden Express for three weeks, setting up the salad bar and baking cookies. “I feel I can kind of work at my own pace here,” she says. “A lot is being expected of me, but I don’t feel pressured.”

Jeanette and her colleagues work at the restaurant from 15 to 40 hours a week, and their hourly wages are based on productivity; beginners receive 98 cents an hour, and the most advanced students earn $4.25. Tips are funneled into a scholarship fund. “It’s a good program,” Jeanette says. “Everyone is pulling together.”

Despite the project’s conspicuous success, Lawson and the board of directors are still facing challenges. With an annual budget of $380,000, the Eden Express is running in the red. Food sales, training fees and grants cover the overhead, but training expenses eat up potential profits. A recently signed contract to bake 300 dozen cookies a week for a California cookie company will bring in an estimated $10,000 yearly, but it won’t solve the biggest problem facing the Express—a downtown renewal project that will drive up the program’s $2,300-a-month rent or, more likely, force the restaurant to look for new quarters.

Some of the project’s well-placed supporters will undoubtedly help cushion the blow. Hayward Mayor Alex Giuliani has served as guest chef, and city council members occasionally stop in for an Eden burger. “They’re all in our corner,” says Lawson. “They’re concerned about us.” But the biggest vote of confidence—and certainly the most encouraging—comes from employers who have put Express graduates to work. “They see that our folks know what they’re doing,” says training director Cymrot, “and they call to say, ‘Send me two more.’ ”

—By Michelle Green, with Michael Alexander in Hayward