Café COOP Racine has been serving up 100% butter croissants to Huntingdon locals since 2012. What many Haut Saint-Laurent residents might not be aware of is the social change that is happening inside the charming country café. As well as frothing a Plateau Montreal-quality-latte, the COOP employs local youth who wouldn’t otherwise have any job prospects.
The vision for the COOP came about as a Youth Table of the Haut-Saint Laurent mission. Founded in 1999, the Youth Table is a public health initiative made up of representatives from local organizations like the CLSC, NFSB, and Maison des jeunes. When these representatives came together to discuss what kind of project they would pursue with the allocated funding, there was a consensus around one, multifaceted social issue: the Huntingdon area has a problem with young adults who don’t have high school diplomas or any work prospects, and who are in poor physical and mental health.
The Youth Table didn’t have the statistics to prove it, so they first set about doing the research. The numbers came back that a staggering 43% of the population of young adults age 16 – 35 were in this very challenging position. The group came up with the idea for a social enterprise that would help transition young adults into the work force by giving them employable skills, and thus, an alternative to relying on wellfare.
Nathalie Collins, one of the seven board members who donates their time and skills to the project, laughs when she says, “We never could have imagined the number of challenges—from acquiring professional-grade appliances to getting a license to use pure butter from the Quebec government.” After finally jumping though all the licensing loopholes, and many fortuitous Kijiji purchases, they managed to open the café. These days, a refurbished door from Nathalie’s barn forms a table, local artisanal goods are displayed for sale, vibrant artwork lines the walls, and locals rave about the sandwiches and coffee.
For the last three years, the café has employed six or seven youth at a time with government-subsidized salaries and the possibility to pursue cooking certification. The rotating café staff also prepares lunches at high school Arthur Pigeon, a collaboration that has worked well and allowed the café to lower overhead costs by buying produce in bulk. But the project is not without major challenges. The business isn’t able to sustain itself without funding, since they are only charging a fraction of what these goods would cost at a Montreal café. “The local population won’t pay those prices,” Nathalie explains.
Another challenge is affording the salaries of a full-time chef and café coordinator, who also need to double as counselors for the staff. There are many day-to-day operational hiccups, Nathalie explains. “It’s a huge challenge to count on staff to arrive on time. We are constantly coaching them through life issues such as pregnancy and substance abuse or helping them try to budget out their paychecks.” The COOP does not have a selection process and will employ any youth, regardless of their background.
Despite all of the logistical challenges with such a mammoth project, the café has proved completely life changing for many individuals. Recently a former staff member enrolled at CEGEP John Abbott. Another now works at Valleyfield’s La Petite Grange.
“Seeing just one member of the team make a positive life change makes it all worth it,” Nathalie says. “It means we’ve empowered them to change their lives.”