Jean Recapet immigrated to the United States from Bordeaux, France, in 1977. He worked his way up at Atticus Bookstore Cafe on Chapel Street, where he is now the manager.
In that capacity, though not intentionally, he has made hiring immigrants a hallmark of the business, which takes special measures to help its employees to learn English and assimilate to the work environment. Atticus’ 35 employees hail from almost 10 countries, including Canada, Argentina and Mexico, Recapet said. About 23 of his employees come from Hispanic countries, he added.
“I hired one Malaysian person in the early ’80s, and within six months, we had four Malaysians working here” recalled Recapet, an animated man with thick-rimmed glasses and scruffy gray hair. “Then, in the ’90s, I hired one Mexican, and now [Hispanics] make up two-thirds of our staff.”
A block down Chapel Street from Atticus, at Book Trader Café, for example, all but one of 11 employees (excluding the owners) are Caucasians between 20 and 28 years old, said Aaron Demoss, Book Trader’s manager.
“It’s kind of a typecast job, working at a coffee shop,” Demoss said. “The kind of person who thinks, ‘Hey, it might be cool to work at a coffee shop’ is typically a middle-class, white person in their twenties.”
At Atticus, Recapet said, the diversity of the staff stems from his reliance on employees to recommend other potential job applicants, a system he said establishes trust among Atticus’ staff.
Elroy Lira, a supervisor at Atticus, said the employees at the café feel like family, though none are related.
Three years ago, Recapet began to offer his employees an opportunity to learn English with Yale student tutors. Today, a dozen of his employees are fully enrolled in the program, each matched up with a Yale student recruited by William Kletter ’10. Recapet said each student and employee must commit to meeting six times a month for 45 minutes to speak in English and practice with workbooks supplied by Atticus for free. Last year, only 25 percent of students and employees stuck to the program for the full six months, but those that did improved dramatically, Recapet said.
“One of our cooks didn’t speak any English before the program last year,” Recapet said. “But now he is 75 percent fluent in English, and he got a promotion. Now, he’s a waiter and got a raise.”
Recapet said the program makes good business sense, allowing employees to communicate with customers. He said he feels strongly about providing new opportunities for immigrants.
Lira, a native of Mexico who has a green card, said most of the Hispanic employees at Atticus have work permits or green cards. Few are U.S. citizens, he said.
Atticus has been open since 1976.