Longtime DES headquarters café operator Val Luttenberger is retiring this month. Val’s Get-A-Way Café is a staple at the DES headquarters building in Phoenix, and serves approximately 950 state employees each weekday. Just like any restaurant owner, Val is responsible for everything in the café. She takes inventory, manages the books, hires and trains staff, complies with food safety regulations and much more. However, this isn’t a story about a successful café operator, it is one of tenacity, drive and motivation. You see, Val is legally blind. She was born with a genetic condition called Rod-Cone Dystrophy.
If you didn’t notice Val’s white cane, there’s a chance you wouldn’t notice she is living with a disability as challenging as visual impairment. She is smart, social and after only a few minutes of talking to her, you can tell she is one of those special people who leaves an impression on everyone she meets.
Val grew up in Arizona in a home where three out of four children had Rod-Cone Dystrophy. With limited awareness of the condition, Val’s parents did the best they could to give their children a normal life. Despite her physical limitations and name-calling from her peers, Val played sports and carried on just like anyone else.
She lives her life according to her motto – “If you say you can you will; and if you say you can’t you won’t.” This attitude gave Val the strength that carried her through her career as an individual with visual impairment in a sighted world.
Val found herself a divorced, single mother of three who needed income to support her family, so she went to DES in search of a job. Her drive for success was abundantly clear so her Vocational Rehabilitation counselor referred her to the Arizona Business Enterprise Program (BEP), a rigorous but rewarding program that supports individuals with visual impairment as entrepreneurs.
“BEP is the best kept secret that shouldn’t be,” said BEP Manager Nathan Pullen.
BEP uses no state funding. The program operates on profits made from participants’ businesses, including the 5,200 BEP operator-run vending machines throughout Arizona. These contributions are then matched by federal dollars.
“It (BEP) isn’t a sit at home and collect a check program,” said Pullen. “We provide the opportunity, then it’s up to the operator to make it successful.”
Opportunities include an intense 6-month training program and access to special equipment that contribute to an operator’s success. Val uses many of those tools, including “talking” thermometers, scales, calculators, and cash registers.
“She (Val) is so involved in the day-to-day operations of her business. She is the face of the café and that is why she has been so successful,” added Pullen.
Val’s tenacious spirit has taken her from a café employee to an award-winning entrepreneur. She is loved by her customers because of her delicious menu, warmth and customer service. Her staff enjoy working for her because of her willingness to help them succeed. Over the years, Val has employed many disabled Arizonans, including twelve individuals with visual impairment.
“If they are qualified they deserve the chance just like I had to contribute to their community and support their families,” said Val.
Val developed a great love for the BEP program, and called being involved with BEP is the best decision she ever made.
“I wouldn’t be where I am at today without it,” she said. “[Through BEP] I was able to maximize my full potential.”
For Arizonans living with disabilities, Val highly recommends DES’ Vocational Rehabilitation program. During National Disability Employment Awareness month (NDEAM), and every day she is a noble example of how the American dream can be obtained regardless of physical limitation as long as you have the drive, determination and will.
So what’s next for Val? She says she’ll continue to be an advocate for BEP and individuals with visual impairment. She will take some time to travel and enjoy the freedom of not having to wake up at 3 a.m. to make it to work on time. While we may not see her at the café every day, she is certainly not done working.
“I wouldn’t mind mentoring blind people who might want to go through BEP,” she said.
And as for the café? Val is confident her successors – a new operator aided by longtime café manager, Isaiah Picazo-- will continue to serve state workers high quality food and deliver excellent customer service.
We will miss you, Val! Thanks for proving that this year’s theme for NDEAM is true - inclusion works!