SAINT JOHN – There’s a relatively new cafe in uptown Saint John that’s not only extremely Instgramable but is also helping people in the community transition into the workforce.
Tucked inside the Social Enterprise Hub (139 Prince Edward Street) in the Waterloo Village neighborhood in the city’s uptown, Stone Soup Cafe is operated by the Saint John Learning Exchange, an organization that offers adults individualized learning, skill development, and access to employment.
Stone Soup Cafe sells various kinds of coffee drinks and offers daily healthy food specials made with local ingredients. Decked out with trendy industrial style-furniture with big bay doors that open up on warm, sunny days, it’s a small trendy spot you’d expect to see in larger cities like Toronto.
“We have the best coffee in the city I would say, hands-down,” says Christina Fowler, executive director of the Saint John Learning Exchange.
Thing is, not many people know about it– at least not yet, anyway.
The cafe only opened at the end of the last year and is located in a unique location in a part of town not many people would think to go. Yet, it’s playing a small part in a revitalization of the neighborhood, which is a building that houses several non-profits in the city.
Though it’s frequented by those working in the Social Enterprise Hub and those working at the call centre and mall across the street, growing the customer base beyond that is something Fowler and her team are focused on.
“With the cafe, I still think we’re at that evolution. People who know us make it a point to meet down there,” she says. “It’s word of mouth, like any business.”
Stone Soup is just one part of Stone Soup Catering, a social enterprise that also offers catering services, a school lunch program for five schools, and an express cafe at the city’s YMCA. It was a long road to get to this point, which started eight years ago at one of the Learning Exchange’s classes.
“It started in a class project where we were working with people with low literacy skills and we wanted to do project-based learning,” says Fowler. “It was the experimentation between how do you help someone who is not going to get their GED but has a lot of viable work options get the skills needed to retain employment.”
One day a week, learners would go to Stone Church in uptown Saint John and use its kitchen. They would cook different meals while at the same time learning various literacy and numeracy skills, as well as how to work in a group.
From there, learners started hosting community dinners. Then Stone Soup eventually got their first contract with another nonprofit group to cater its meetings.
“It grew from this itty bitty little entity taking on more and more contracts and really focusing on the catering side of things,” says Fowler.
Today, Stone Soup has become a popular caterer for nonprofits, businesses and political events and meetings in Saint John.
There’s no doubt the Stone Soup’s social mission has played an important role in its success and community support. As a social enterprise, many of those who work at Stone Soup are participants of the Saint John Learning Exchange’s programs.
They are paid a living wage and are given a place to practice the skills they learned in classes and get hands-on experience. Some learners end up becoming permanent employees, while others move on to other work. The Saint John Learning Exchange also runs two other social enterprises, Voila Cleaning and the Impact Market.
“The passion behind it is that learners train in the classrooms, they learn the hard skills and the soft skills and they apply it as they work in the businesses,” says Fowler.
“I’m amazed every time I see them from the classroom where they’re nervous and don’t look you in the eye, then you see them working and they’re smiling, joking. They’re proud and they’re empowered.”
Though Stone Soup is doing great and important work in the community, a good mission will only take a social enterprise so far. It’s a business too and in order to sustain and keep working its mission, it needs to offer a competitive product and service. To customers, you’re a business first.
“Ultimately at the end of the day, if you suck at cleaning someone’s house, they don’t care about your social mission,” says Fowler. “They care about your social mission when you do a fantastic job cleaning their house”
This is something Fowler says Stone Soup has managed to do over the last few years.
“We always play around with that. Is your value-add that you’re working with people with barriers? But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. You still have to have an exceptional product,” she says.
“You still have to be the best at what you do. I would say that our sandwiches, our soups, our chillis, the menu can stand up to anything else in this city. You prove it and you keep going.”
Besides growing the cafe’s patronage, Fowler says the plan is to continue growing the catering side of Stone Soup. They also plan on renting their facilities to different groups and are looking into food production opportunities as well.
“We’re really trying to be strategic as to where we go next and where we can make money so we can train and employ more people,” says Fowler. “Are we going to open more cafes? No. We’re going to focus on this one, get it going, always have people in there training, having more staff. “