Friendship Circle Cafe and Bakery is much more than a cafe and bakery.
The cafe is a place for individuals with special needs to gain occupational skills alongside experienced professionals.
Just beyond the cafe, volunteer art teachers guide individuals with special needs in creating decorative crafts alongside children without special needs.
The space, which opened Dec. 20, is operated by the Friendship Circle of Wisconsin, an organization that provides recreational programs for people with special needs.
The organization is a division of Chabad-Lubavitch of Wisconsin, which practices traditional Judaism, but the programming is open to people of all religious backgrounds.
The director of Friendship Circle, Rabbi Levi Stein, decided two years ago to start a bakery as a way of teaching occupational skills to individuals with special needs. The bakery’s products can now be found at the Sendik’s Food Market in Mequon, among other places.
As the bakery grew, Stein decided to find a brick-and-mortar space so the program could expand its bakery production, provide a retail outlet for its products and teach customer service skills to program participants.
Stein also decided to add an art studio in the back of the space, because art nights have always been the Friendship Circle’s most popular event.
“We took the greatest needs we found in the community, and we brought them under one roof,” Stein said.
The 50-seat cafe also fills another gap in the marketplace. It’s one of the places in the Milwaukee area to offer a completely kosher menu.
Located in the Riverpoint Village Shopping Center, the 6,500-square-foot space at 8649 N. Port Washington Road has undergone a major renovation since it was last occupied by North Shore Bistro in 2015.
On its first weekend in business, the clientele included a mix of Jews, gentiles, individuals with special needs and those without special needs.
Some of the most popular items in the bakery are the chocolate crinkle cookies, sweet crumble challah rolls and the lemon tart.
Fourteen individuals with special needs are employed in the bakery and cafe. Five of them work in the front of the house, greeting those who come through the door and serving drinks to customers.
Having individuals with special needs in these customer-facing roles will make them more visible, Stein said, and possibly change customers’ perceptions.
The cafe operations are managed by Sandy Albornoz, who previously worked as a barista at the Starbucks across the street. Albornoz said she tries to keep the pace of the work manageable, and to provide positive reinforcement to her employees.
“We’re all on one team,” she said. “Everybody is valued the same, whether you are a professional barista, an apprentice or a greeter. Across the board, we are all equal.”
In the art studio, volunteer art teachers help individuals of all abilities create ceramic art projects, ornaments made out of old compact discs and drawings encased in embroidery hoops.
When individuals with special needs get overwhelmed, either from working in the cafe or from the art studio, they are able to decompress in a sensory studio with headphones, games and walls that light up.
Kristy Graettinger, who had previously brought her 18-year-old daughter Hadley to some of the Friendship Circle’s mall walks at Bayshore, said she was excited to visit the cafe for the first time on opening weekend.
The Graettingers just moved to Whitefish Bay from Alabama, where she said there was a lack in special needs programming for Hadley.
“Everyone is so welcoming here,” she said. “It’s such a nice place to find when you are new to the community.”
One participant in the art program, Kathryn Conn, said she appreciated the cafe because “it accepts me.”
The Friendship Circle is still fundraising for about $80,000 of the roughly $500,000 renovation project. Stein also hopes to raise about $10,000 for a special wall in the sensory room.
Stein does not expect the center to be self-sustaining in the first year, but he does expect the coffee shop to eventually become sustainable. Any profits will go toward additional programming for individuals with special needs.
Friendship Circle Bakery and Cafe is open from 6:30 a.m to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The center will not be open Saturdays, which is observed as Shabbat under Jewish tradition.
The art studio is open from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The studio is open from 9:30 a.m. to noon Sunday. If no birthday parties are booked Sunday afternoon, the studio will remain open until 4:30 p.m.
To donate, volunteer or book a private party, visit fcwi.org.
Contact Jeff Rumage at (262) 446-6616 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @JeffRumage or Facebook at www.facebook.com/northshorenow.
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