FOX POINT – The Brooklyn, New York-based Friendship Circle has programs throughout North America and elsewhere, pairing volunteer teens with kids who have special needs, among other programming.
Over the summer of 2017, the local Friendship Circle executive director, Rabbi Levi Stein, and his partner and wife Leah Stein, decided to take that international mission in an atypical direction. They launched Friendship Bakery, which trains local people with special needs on the job even as they produce professional-quality baked goods. Under the guidance of an experienced pastry chef over the last two years, the baked goods menu has grown. The endeavor has expanded beyond home delivery to include some shelf space in Sendik’s Food Market.
Now, the Steins have another idea.
By the end of the calendar year, Levi said he expects to have a new, 6,500 square-foot Friendship Circle complex up and running in the former North Shore Bistro, 8649 N. Port Washington Road in Fox Point. The complex will have three main components – a large kosher coffee shop open to all, an art studio and a huge kitchen.
In short, Friendship Circle of Wisconsin, a division of Lubavitch of Wisconsin, is soon to balloon in size and capability.
Roughly one-third of the former North Shore Bistro space will be used for the coffee shop, to be named in memory of Todd Miller, of blessed memory.
Todd Miller had been a champion for this project with wife Terry, right up until Todd’s unexpected death in a May 27, 2019 car accident. The Millers fundraised from family and other sources. Todd was helping review the leasing contract, reaching out to other donors and “helping me with pretty much all the planning,” Levi said.
Terry has carried on, fundraising and agreeing to join the project as an educational director. She will be thinking about questions like, how can we break an employee’s counter task down to its component parts, to present it effectively to a worker with special needs?
“Our goal is learning new skills. So it’s real vocational training,” said Terry, who holds a master’s degree in special education. “We will figure out each task and ask, how do we break down that job?”
Also assisting with the planning is Leah; she holds a dual master’s in special education and administrative education.
The plan is that people with special needs will be working alongside professional baristas, so that participants can learn workplace skills while delivering a “five star” coffee shop experience for customers, Levi said.
The coffee shop will make use of about a third of the former North Shore Bistro, offering more room for group gatherings than a few other nearby establishments. The spot will include a “quiet room” for any participants who feel they need it and space available upon request for group coffee meetings.
The coffee shop will be kosher certified, and it will not be open on Shabbat. Construction in the space started in July and the coffee is expected to start flowing for the public at some point over the next few months.
Friendship Circle of Wisconsin currently borrows a local Chabad-Lubavitch kitchen on a part-time basis – at 3109 N. Lake Drive in Milwaukee – to operate Friendship Bakery. It’s not a space for a crowd. Even the current maximum of three participants at a time, with staff, can be tight.
“What’s inspiring us to grow is that our limitation right now is time and space,” Levi said, but added: “The main inspiration for us growing is that we will be able to impact many more people with special needs with employment training (to achieve) long term employment.”
The bakery space in Fox Point will be roughly four times the size of the borrowed Milwaukee space, with a dedicated walk-in fridge and freezer. Friendship Bakery will move from Milwaukee to Fox Point in the months to come; it’s expected to offer baked goods at the new coffee shop, growing the menu over time.
“The coffee shop model has been successful elsewhere in the United States for employment of people with special needs,” Levi said. There are maybe a handful of other efforts along these lines, noted Terry. “This is really groundbreaking,” she said.
For example, Levi admires Bitty & Beau’s Coffee of Georgia and North Carolina. The café’s locations employ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “With over 80% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities unemployed nationwide, Beau’s Coffee created a path for people with IDD to become more valued, accepted and included in every community,” according to a Bitty & Beau’s statement.
For Terry and Levi, the issue is also avoiding isolation. Levi notes that he’s had participants show up an hour early for programming, because they’re looking for something to do.
But Levi is quick to point out, the coffee shop isn’t just for giving people with special needs access to others in the community. It’s also for exposing people in the community to those with special needs, enriching their lives. It provides a “two-way” benefit, Levi said.
A coffee shop, in fact, is a level playing field, a place without division. “A coffee shop is for all segments of the community,” Levi said.
Besides the coffee shop, the complex will include Friendship Studio – an art room.
This will be a spot for “everything from pottery, to mixed media art, to screen printing and much more,” Levi said. “There will be daily open hours for the general community and time for events for kids and/or adults. You will also be able to rent the space for a birthday party and get the food from the bakery for other similar events.”
The project is Levi’s dream, made possible by fundraising. Even Shira, 22, who can’t wait for the new facility to open, has been asking people: “Can you please help Friendship Circle?”