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Dignity served with every cup at Lil E Coffee Cafe

Lil E Coffee Cafe
Inclusive Employer
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Staff at Lil E Coffee Cafe

Photo Credit: Aaron Reimer

Rhiannon Taylor:
“I love this business and what Paul provides for us and I am enjoying the company of customers and a place to enjoy coffee, and knowing that it’s really good coffee, and you’ll come back.”

Photo Credit: Kiki Davies

Darby Taylor:
“I was really happy to get this job. It was the best Christmas present. It’s been really hard for me to find a job. I have been trying to find a job since 2013. It gives me confidence…in greeting the customers. They’re so patient with me. Having autism is a hard challenge for me.”

Photo Credit: Aaron Reimer

Shelby Zawyrucha:
[With regard to looking for work/finding a job]
“I don’t like in person interviews because when they see me, they always reject me.”
To see Ella (Lil E) running around the café:
“It inspires me when you see her walking around, it reminds me of me.”

When was the Cafe was opened?
Lil E was officially opened up February 4th, 2021.

It was late 2018 when Lil E Founder/Director Paul Constance visited Washington, DC while attending a EO Global Leadership Academy event. On this same trip, a colleague shared with him of a café in the USA which is staffed by individuals with Down syndrome. The experience hit home, as Paul thought of his darling baby girl Ella who was born with Down syndrome. What about when she gets older? Would she have meaningful opportunities in life? Back at home, research showed a large percentage of adults with developmental disabilities in Canada are not in the workforce; not successfully finding paid, consistent work even though many are willing and able to work. Paul and his wife Alana (Ella’s Mom) didn’t want that to be the case for Ella. For anyone.

Paul wanted to show Ella and her brothers that in life, you can make a difference and need to take action. From there the idea of Lil E took off, and pieces of the puzzle magically fell into place.

Along this journey we have been shown immense generosity and learned a true sense of community. We accept and celebrate everyone. We have SO much fun! We are paving a new way. What makes us different, makes us great, and at Lil E we are brewing greatness. This starts with belief that each person has what it takes to be great.

Photo Credit: Kiki Davies

Founder/Director of Lil E Cafe, Paul Constance, his wife, Alana and daughter, Ella.

About the model – what happens after your staff’s one-year with you? Do they receive a certificate that indicates the transferable skills they have developed over that year? Do you help them find employment? 

In the beginning when we started researching, we learned many Canadians reported that their disability had created barriers to employment. We felt it was time to make a change.

We wanted to facilitate not just a job opportunity, but a journey for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to build meaningful and long-lasting careers. In turn creating a more accepting and inclusive community.
When Lil E team members are ready to further apply their workplace experience (not necessarily limited to one year), we will connect them to future opportunities with the “Lil E Roasters”. These are our corporate friends who have shown interest and support in Lil E. These wonderful corporations share in our values and are aligned to hire Lil E employees and/or candidates in our pipeline, to further break down these barriers and create awareness/acceptance.

With this model, our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is to build 10,000 careers. We are always on the lookout for potential employers for a Lil E “graduate” and encourage interested corporations to contact us for more info on the program.

What will you say makes working in your cafe a rewarding job for your staff?

In a short time, we have created a fun and welcoming workspace and culture. From the very beginning in our initial interviews, we stressed our number one rule is to have FUN working. You will see a sign on our café door as employees come into the workspace which says, “Show Time, Have FUN”. You will find our employees smiling, or even dancing, while they make your drinks. Our legendary Friday Dance Offs have gone viral on social media. Customers consistently comment that coming to Lil E, and experiencing our employees’ genuine joy and positive nature, instantly brightens their day.

Research indicates nearly two-thirds of adults with a developmental disability in Canada are not in the workforce, even though many are ready, willing and able to work. This is the first job for many of our employees and we want them to enjoy the experience and be comfortable as they build their confidence and life/employment skills starting their career journey.

With the help from a couple of volunteers (aka Lil E Angels), our core team learns how to do all the tasks/activities in our café, from running the POS system, making the drinks including latte artwork, customer greeting, baking and prep food, taking inventory, etc.. This is important to us that our staff take on all responsibilities no different to any other employee, in order to have meaningful employment. We would never want any employee to feel limited to simple tasks, as we want each person to expand their skills and understand their true ability, for themselves, and how they can contribute within the community.

Also, starting out it was important to us to have diversity in our organization. We currently have 10 employees, five staff members with Down syndrome and five with autism. This daily exchange amongst our staff members has created a unique experience for collaboration to learn from one another; it builds on individual strengths and helps identify potential challenges to focus on going forward. It is quite beautiful to witness the synergies and team work among our staff, and this positive environment extends into the customer experience.

What are some of the positives your employees bring to the cafe?
I joke you don’t need a coffee when you come to Lil E, as it’s hard not to feel a rush of energy when you meet our staff. They are always smiling and just happy to be there. They care most about those around them being happy and are grateful for the opportunity. Our employees work hard, and they have fun. It is truly infectious. During these challenging times, as the world continues to cope with Covid, this has been very refreshing for all of us.

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