Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU) assists vulnerable and at-risk youth in London and Middlesex County, by delivering transformational programs where participants can find their voice and articulate their needs. Knowing that many young people need guidance, mentoring and support, YOU believes that investing in youth and strengthening communities go hand-in-hand.
YOU was founded in 1982 by a coalition of community groups, including United Way, Fanshawe College and the London Board of Education. Through Transition, Career, and Enterprise Services the organization provides youth with the training, skill development, mentoring and referrals they need to help develop their potential.
In 1879 the three-story building that houses YOU at 332 Richmond Street opened as the American House. In 1933 it was renamed The Grigg House after innkeeper Samuel Grigg. Since then the landmark building has undergone several transformations. In 2007 YOU purchased the building, and in 2009, after a public naming contest, it was renamed The Cornerstone.
In November 2011 YOU celebrated the grand opening of The Cornerstone in downtown London. The Cornerstone is made possible through funding by the Government of Canada, the Government of Ontario, the City of London and other donors and community partners.
The upper floors of the building contain 30 units of transition and affordable housing for young people. Interior renovations to the main floor include the Youth Action Centre, an apprentice training centre, an alternative education classroom, an entertainment/recreation area, offices and the YOU Made It Café.
A rooftop garden produces herbs, flowers and vegetables, all planted and harvested by youth for the YOU Made It Café. This self-sustaining urban oasis serves as an interactive outdoor classroom. Seating areas in the garden as well as a rooftop boardroom provide tenants and guests with a unique vista in the heart of downtown London.
As the composite of several commercial businesses, the YOU Made It program was launched to offer applied skills training in all facets of a small business to youth facing employment barriers. In 1996, YOU introduced its first social enterprise, Reuse It Recycling, which provides recycling services to businesses and includes the manufacturing of goods from recycled items. In the absence of a recycling program downtown, it is a blessing to conscientious downtown restaurants and offices. YOU has also operated a woodworking shop for nearly twenty years, where participants are trained in the principles of woodworking from basic to advanced techniques.
Market Quality Preserves (MQP) was also developed as a social enterprise initiative and is only one of multiple facets of culinary education offered by YOU. Under supervision, local youth at The New Wave Centre in Strathroy prepare jams, jellies, salsas and spreads, from start to finish, which are sold in a retail space and are also available at Sunripe and Farm Boy outlets, as well as other established retailers.
In the bistro-style YOU Made It Café, affordably-priced and nutritious scratch and serve meals are prepared. The Café serves up breakfast and lunch from Monday to Friday. The Café also offers professional catering services as part of its day-to-day operations, featuring a variety of affordable menu options. With a retail store and wireless internet, the café is the public face of the commercial-style kitchen and training operation.
Food and beverage operations are directed by executive chef Ricardo Cavaco and sous chef Ron Beeswax. In addition, there are three full-time staff, three part-time staff and four to twelve youth engaged in the program at any given time. There is also a new youth mentor, who started in the program as a youth trainee.
Facilitated by Cavaco, the YOU Made It Café kitchen team prepares 140 to 500 meals a day on contract for Meals on Wheels London. Thursdays are full production days for Friday to Sunday meals. Meal on Wheels provides service to adults with disabilities and seniors (65+) in need of nutritional support. That’s the backbone of the Café’s kitchen operation and the revenue from that enterprise allows for a modest profit. To date, the YOU Made It Café remains the most successful business enterprise in the organization’s history. However, executive director Steve Cordes has said the YOU Made It Café can always use more business to bring in additional revenue and give the staff training.
The catering arm of the operation will soon be preparing for BBQ season, with regular BBQ’s on the rooftop of the Cornerstone as well as periodic BBQ’s in the community. Cordes says, “I believe we will be doing bi-weekly BBQ’s at the London Roundhouse again starting in the spring.”
Until recently, YOU had been hosting evening dining events with Cavaco and Beeswax, organized around various themes including a craft beer night, New Orleans Cajun seafood dinner and a dinner complete with wine pairings and featuring a sommelier. More recently, as part of a newly instituted Cornerstone Cuisine dinner series, the youth at YOU were asked to collaborate with a guest chef or restaurant to prepare a three-course meal one night each month.
YOU has introduced the guest chef model as a means of introducing youth trainees to the philosophies of other chefs and restaurants. Participating chefs are requested to design a culturally-inspired menu of their choosing. The main goal of the Cornerstone Cuisine dinner series is to engage the young trainees by allowing them to gain the skills and confidence they need to hit the ground running in future jobs. It provides youth with a critical training opportunity to learn, gain experience and strengthen their abilities. This collaboration also allows guest chefs the opportunity to meet and work with youth who will soon be seeking employment.
Guests this year include Jill Wilcox and chef Josie Pontarelli from Jill’s Table, Dave Strano from Burrito Boyz, chef Stephanie Brewster, Andrew Fleet from Growing Chefs, and cheese expert Martin Withenshaw.
YOU’s social enterprise success is an inspirational entrepreneurial model for community economic development, which has been achieved by combining both economic and social beliefs with leadership, innovation and civic collaboration.
YOU Made It Café
332 Richmond Street
Monday–Friday: 7:30am – 2:30pm
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.