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Latte with a Side of Love

Cafe built and serviced by individuals with special needs opens in Milwaukee

It smells like a cafe ought to. The rows of eclairs and tarts and cupcakes line the glass counter in perfect, high-caloric formation. Light streams in through large windows, dimpling the whipped cream on the flawlessly frothed drinks. 

And then the barista asks for your order. And you know that there is something special about this place. 

The Friendship Bakery served its first cappuccinos and espressos on Sunday in suburban Milwaukee. The cafe which gives a home, and a public face, to the organization’s already popular bakery will employ 35 workers with special needs and a cadre of support staff. Until now, the bakery operated out of a shared kitchen at Lubavitch House on Milwaukee’s East Side. Bakers and staff produced magnificent challah and desserts that were sold weekly via pre-order and at local specialty groceries. 

“We were very limited in the work we could do, in the hours that we could be there,” explains Friendship Circle co-director Rabbi Levi Stein. “Plus, our workers were not interacting with the community.” 

All that changes with the opening of this gleaming 8,500 square foot space on the corner of Port Washington and Brown Deer Roads. “We expanded into a full cafe because learning how to make and serve coffee products is a very consistent process for our employees. And we wanted a place where everyone can gather.” The Bakery also houses an art studio and event space and will ultimately host the majority of the Circle’s programming. 

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is at a staggering 80 percent nationwide. Once individuals with special needs hit 21, they age out of all educational offerings and many are left aimless at home or in group homes. Isolation can easily lead to depression or disorderly conduct. Stein, who directs the Friendship Circle’s booming children and young adult programming, wanted to assist the older set as well. 

Aside from teaching basic food prep and serving, the Bakery offers each employee a personalized curriculum covering all manner of employment know-how. A special educator designs a unique course including 50 different areas such as appropriate dress and hygiene, fine motor skills, relationship coaching, stress management, adaptability, and customer service. Each month, progress is evaluated and goals are tweaked. Ultimately, says Stein, the Bakery hopes to prepare individuals for work elsewhere and assists them with job placement.

Jonathan Frank worked as a baker in Friendship Circle’s provisional kitchen for a year and a half. “I really enjoyed it,” he says. “When Levi [Stein] saw I was getting all the skills, he made me a graduation with my supervisor and co-workers.” Frank transitioned into a delivery position and is starting training as an assistant barista this week. “It is a good experience for me and a good opportunity to be around other people,” Frank says between shifts. “Levi is a dynamite person. He knows his stuff and he knows he has a good person working for him.” 

“When you spend two hours rolling out challah dough with someone, you really get to know them,” explains Betsy Kimmel, the Bakery’s Manager. “One of our bakers has a hard time communicating, so as we knead, I ask questions and we have discussions.”

The Bakery employs a professional pastry chef who leads baking sessions and does fine decorating. “Our workplace is inclusive, not everyone here has special needs,” explains Kimmel. “Our participants are going to move to places of employment with a variety of people, and we help them adjust to that now.” Employees, who are paid competitively, bake, prepare drinks, run deliveries, wash dishes, maintain inventory, and take orders. One prospective employee is an expert at mulching so Kimmel plans to hire him to keep the outside manicured. She hopes to impart the skills necessary for his future employment with a landscaper. 

“Everyone is so different. We seek to find their skills and create jobs around them.” The bakery is already gaining attention. Other organizations and local school districts are hoping to make this a common center for people with special needs.

Thousands of stunning desserts and hundreds of challahs are prepared weekly. According to Stein, every local Jewish organization has ordered the bakery’s products for their events. “A lot of people feel that this is their bakery,” says Kimmel. “They’re invested in its success, they come to the back to watch us bake and to ask us where their favorite product is. It’s a really warm environment and we all want to come to work. We eat, we laugh, we smell good things. It’s just a really happy place for all of us.”


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