College Street Café and Catering provides employment to people with a history of addiction and mental illness. We are a food retail and catering business with a wide variety of products. As one of several social enterprises operated by Working for Change, College Street Café and Catering is connected with Out of This World Café operating at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
As part of Working for Change (a nonprofit organization established in 1994 to provide employment opportunities for people with mental health issues), College Street Café and Catering is connected with other social enterprises under their umbrella, Out of This World Café, which has a long and successful history of operation within the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Having a strong relationship with the hospital community, we work with consumer survivors.
The idea of College Street Café and Catering originated in 2012 when the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) approached us to take over all the retail food service onsite. We had already successfully operated Out of This World Café within the hospital but decided to phase in slowly as we were not ready to take over all three new restaurants at the same time. Thus, in terms of developing the idea, we already had this type of business in place: it was matter of scaling it up to a much larger business.
In the first phase, we opened a small place at 250 College Street. At that time, we prepared food at another site and shipped it over daily to College Street. Receiving funding from Toronto Enterprise Fund to hire a manager at College Street site allowed us to use existing kitchen space that had been available to prepare food onsite and also open a second retail food service space on Russell Street in May 2014.
The team collaborating to develop and implement the plan for the social enterprise included people from Working for Change, the staff of CAMH, and the manager of Out of This World Café. We already had experience in launching and operating social enterprises and in running food business. CAMH assisted in getting the facility ready and taking care of equipment repairs.
From the beginning, College Street Café and Catering had two revenue streams, the retail business and catering that work together. Since then, our revenue and sales volume has grown but the model has remained the same. The sales are of smaller scale, averaging about $4 per order for retail and $300 per order for catering business. The main success factor in increasing our revenue was getting people to know us and our products in our service area. We have advertised through internal communication within CAMH. We sell to the broader community as well since most retail clients are hospital staff, patients and visitors. Catering clients include the hospital as well as other external organizations, for-profit businesses, and social enterprises.
As a fairly new business, we are still dealing with many challenges. The space set up remains an issue: there are two separate retail operations and a kitchen in different buildings. These three very different spaces require attention, which has created problems from a supervisory perspective. One manager has to handle the demand of trying to be at several places at once. In addressing this challenge, we have emphasized the training component, making sure we have staff strong in all areas, who do not require a lot of supervision.
We also struggled with low sales at the beginning, averaging $30-$40 per day. Obviously we were losing money every time we opened doors. But our team just kept working. Now our sales have increased to a sustainable level for the business, reaching $300-$500 per day. As the café has grown, we are finding it has become too big too fast. Within 6 months, we more than doubled our sales which has presented challenges for staff and management. The biggest challenge at the moment is finding funding to allow us to grow.
The food business is a difficult industry with a very low profit margin. For a social enterprise that tries to balances the business with social mission, this creates additional challenges. In the food business, service is the first priority that cannot be compromised. Even when we were not selling much, we did not compromise our principles.
The key is to have a plan and work with it patiently. At the beginning, it is easy to panic, but focus on the bigger picture: always remember what you are trying to achieve and continue the steps. Everybody wants a magic wand, but hard work and patience makes success. We were able to get to a sustainable level in five months, largely because we had experience in running food-based social enterprises and the right support.
Realize your mistakes, learn from them, and be flexible. Do not stick with the idea if it does not work. For example, we changed our menu four times. Simplifying the menu increased our sales.
Throughout the social development, we were in a unique position of having a strong support from Working for Change and CAMH. We felt that there was nothing missing in terms of the support we needed.
College Street Café and Catering is part of Working for Change. We are a not-for-profit registered business within a charity. Working for Change contributes in-kind support in the areas of financials and administration. In addition to renting the space at a below-market rate to us, CAMH also assists us with taking care of the physical space and equipment repairs.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has always supported us by providing physical space and helping with advertising. The hospital community members are also our clients. Other key organizations were Toronto Enterprise Fund and The Co-operators that provided grants to help us grow.
Impacts & Outcomes Objectives
College Street Café and Catering provides employment to a highly marginalized population, in which the unemployment rate is about 85%. In our model, every dollar in our sales equals 35 cents in wages. Providing those employment opportunities to the community results in more housing security, food security, and better physical and mental health of consumer survivors.
Vision for the Future
We are at fairly good point now having a sustainable level of sales, but have plans to bring it up by 20% or more. The next step is to make sure things are in place to grow the business. Human resources are a key piece as we need funding to hire a full-time supervisor that can assist the manager. For the one manager available right now, taking in more sales volume would be foolish.
We are also reaching the point of capacity: you can only grow so far with a certain amount of equipment. Renovating the kitchen space would help us increase sales.