A New Chance After 26
Café in Cadillac staffed by those with special needs
Starting a restaurant is a demanding endeavor. But for the After 26 project, the scope of the challenge was even more daunting. Its mission was also to provide employment opportunities for people with special needs who had aged out of public educational programs.
Now, years after the subject was first broached among a group of friends, the After 26 Depot Café is serving breakfast and lunch to hungry customers. It’s already becoming a local hub, according to Dave Gaunt, one of the After 26 Project board members “The seed of the idea was planted in 2007,” Gaunt said, when a group of friends got together to discuss how they could provide opportunities for adults with special needs who had surpassed the age of 26, at which time they are no longer eligible for schooling.
The group evolved into a board of six:
Gaunt, Cal Reynolds, Andrew MacDonald, Karen Petterson, Kathy Bloomfield and Lyn Hughes.
They were inspired by a Chesaning restaurant called the Junction of Hope. It was the first non-profit 501 c-3 restaurant in the country, and its purpose is to employ special adults with special needs in southern Saginaw County. The board thought if it could be done in Saginaw, it could be done in Cadillac.
They got to work, but it was slow going at first.
“We did fundraisers, golf outings, bake sales – but when we got a $10,000 donation, it became a credible project,” Gaunt said. “People were starting to hear our story.”
A BIG STEP
Gaunt also wrote grants, and the next big step was when the project received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for $75,000. “We went from ‘How are we going to do it?’ to ‘We ARE going to do it.’” All told, Gaunt estimates the project has a value of half a million dollars. “We’ve probably raised about $250,000 and the other half is in donated time and materials,” he said.
Gaunt says he and others had looked at the former depot and thought it would be the perfect location for a restaurant. However, the group faced two major challenges: It was serving as the headquarters for the local Amvets, and they weren’t interested in selling the building. Furthermore, the structure was in rough shape: Gaunt says its plaster was falling off, the kitchen was condemned and the floor was breaking apart.
An arrangement was reached whereby the Amvets could maintain their base and the building could be brought back to life, while serving as a café and art gallery.
“We decided to try to maintain the historical character of the building, so a bunch of history buffs became interested,” said Gaunt. Given the building’s history, it also attracted railroad enthusiasts and veterans of the armed services.
The project’s website and Facebook page both offer visual testimony of all the work that was done. Gaunt says so many community partners, companies and organizations helped out it’s impossible to name them all.
Not only does the café provide income for persons with disabilities, but for others as well. Gaunt says that inclusiveness is a key to the business’s success.
The café then sets a standard which other businesses will hopefully want to emulate. The board hopes the After 26 Project Foundation will be able to begin paying it forward by offering incentive grants to other groups committed to similar start-ups.
With the option of either indoor or outdoor seating, The Depot Café offers both breakfast and lunch items, all with names derived from the area or the railroad industry. There’s the Shay Locomotive, a healthy egg-white omelet with mushrooms, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes and onions; the Hobart Crossing, two eggs with corned beef hash and cheddar cheese; and the Pennsylvania Railroad, French toast with cinnamon-flavored apple slices.
As the day wears on, customers may opt for the Haynes Street Salad, romaine and iceberg lettuce with gouda and provolone cheese, ham, salami and peppers; the Cass Street sandwich, with chicken, pecans, celery, onion and grapes on a deli roll; even the Lake Street, shrimp cocktail with the restaurant’s own special cocktail sauce.
Gaunt says the menu is still evolving as they listen to the customers. “We do specials, and see what’s selling and what’s not,” he said. “The tuna wrap, it was a killer. It became clear it should be on the menu.”
With the next anticipated grant, an outdoor grill will be purchased. Being situated just across the street from Lake Cadillac and the city park, affords the opportunity of evening BBQ offerings during special events, such as Jazz in the Park on summer Thursdays.
Gaunt and the rest of the community are banking on the After 26 Depot’s success. And if the harbingers of success are good food, a good location, and a willing staff, you wouldn’t want to bet against it.
The After 26 Depot Café is located at 127 Cass St. in Cadillac. Call (231) 468-3526. Online, go to After26project. org or visit its Facebook page. It also has facilities for banquets and private functions.
Hours are 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 to 3 Saturday and Sunday. The restaurant is closed Mondays.
COST: Breakfast starts at $3, with most items at $6 and up. At lunchtime, lighter fare starts at $3.50, salads at $7.95, sandwiches at $7.45.
DON’T MISS: Cherry Grove Fruit Plate, an ever-changing array of fresh fruit with yogurt dipping sauce and a freshly-baked muffin.