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.
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.