The staff of Madison's Cafe in South Berwick huddle for a photo as lunchtime approached during a recent workday. The restaurant prioritizes hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but will close on Nov. 30. Credit: Deb Cram | Seacoast Online

SOUTH BERWICK, Maine — Painted above the kitchen at Madison’s Cafe, among sunflower yellow walls, it reads, “Where all people matter.”

In a system where young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can get lost in the shadows, at Madison’s, they’re the heart and soul of the cafe, running it from top to bottom, as beloved and valued members of the downtown community.

The unique model is at risk of dissolving. Madison’s Cafe is set to close Nov. 30 after a host of factors resulted in a “ridiculous overhead,” said co-owner Nicole McCoomb, whose 20-year-old daughter inspired the business concept, which opened in April 2017.

Being located at the busy intersection of Route 236 and Portland Street is a catch-22 of sorts. While there’s lots of traffic, there’s not a lot of stopping, and it’s not necessarily pedestrian friendly, McCoomb said. It was a Wednesday afternoon at lunchtime and she pointed around the cafe; it was empty.

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Madison’s doesn’t have its own designated parking. The nearby municipal lot is typically full with downtown employees and residents, and McCoomb said parallel parking along a traffic-packed street isn’t conducive to the “grab and go” model of a cafe.

Between rent and upkeep costs, the cafe is thousands of dollars in debt. McCoomb and her business partner Sean Roy said while they’re looking for some sort of miracle, they know simply paying off their overhead isn’t going to sustain them for the long term.

“We either want to be able to stay here and succeed or move to a better location,” she said. “We have such a great concept, we don’t want to lose it. We want to expand on it.”

It’s McCoomb’s dream to turn the cafe into a training facility, where people with developmental disabilities can learn simple life skills, like eye contact, handling money, running a register and social interaction. In a “perfect world,” she said, the cafe would be in a bigger building, with more staff, and have its own parking lot.

“In that world, this would be a hoppin’ cafe,” she said. “There are endless possibilities for things we could do here. There is nothing else like this around.”

McCoomb pointed to an unemployment rate of more than 80 percent for young people with disabilities. A few years ago, when she began to chart her daughter Madison’s future, she wanted to be able to provide her with stable, supportive employment.

Credit: Deb Cram | Seacoast Online

“The light bulb just went off in my head,” she said. “It was like it took me 45 years to see what I was meant to do in life. It is so needed in this community.”

McCoomb and Roy had been friends since high school, and they took on the concept together. Within 12 days, they had signed the lease and the business opened two months later. That year, York County Community College named Madison’s “Employer of the Year.”

“They need to work and they deserve to work,” McCoomb said of young people with disabilities.

Employee Alex Ferguson said she really likes working at Madison’s and wants to see it continue. “I don’t want to see it disappear,” she said. “It means too much to me. It feels like more than just a job.”

Ferguson said she never had a job until Madison’s, and it was her first time going through an interview process. McCoomb said Ferguson has “blossomed like a flower.” One day, her father came into the cafe and “stood in the corner crying,” saying he couldn’t believe the difference he saw in his daughter on a daily basis.

“That is one for the most amazing things I’ve felt, to see someone react that way to what we do here,” McCoomb said.

Employee Brooke Johnson couldn’t stop smiling as she talked about her job at Madison’s. “With my experiences here, I feel like it’s been a tremendous opportunity,” she said. “I really appreciate what Sean and Nicole have done for us. I’m out of my bubble. Customers I interact with enjoy my service. I’ve had compliments from people.”

Employee Dan Patstone said he “learned how to step up.” He walks to work every day, even in the “freezing rain and snow.”

“I was surprised to actually meet people here with common interests I have,” Patstone said. “I get to meet new people everyday.”

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Roy said while their staff is like family to them, it’s their ultimate wish that the employees will leave someday. “Take those skills and broaden their wings,” he said.

“We’re providing a service to people in this community who need something like this,” McCoomb said. “What our employees are learning and gaining and taking with them, they wouldn’t have that otherwise. And so many people can relate. We always hear, ‘My aunt has Down syndrome,’ or, ‘My brother is disabled.’ I think a lot of people know or are close with someone with a disability.”

The South Berwick community has been such an important piece of Madison’s they’d hate to leave it, Roy and McCoomb said. If a new location were to come along, they’d have to consider its proximity to their current employees, many of whom have limited transportation.

“Every time I read something online about us, I feel like I want to break down,” Roy laughed. “I can’t get over how much we’ve affected everybody in this area. I didn’t realize how much.”

Madison’s has considered becoming a nonprofit in order to secure grants and funding, but that’s a whole other avenue they’re probably not ready to explore yet, the owners said.

The community has rallied around the cafe since the closure’s announcement through a Go Fund Me page, which has already raised a couple thousand dollars. McCoomb said she’s not opposed to the idea of re-branding the cafe if that option comes up to keep the concept itself alive.

“I would miss watching these kids blossom, meeting new people, the camaraderie,” she said. “We want to survive. We want to get bigger and better, not just pay off our debt. We’re not just a cafe, we have a vision. This is something that is needed and we want to hold onto it.”