By necessity, entrepreneurs are strong. They’re brave. These traits are a given; to plow out into an unknown, unpredictable future with no less than everything at stake takes an inordinate amount of courage.
Because this is so commonly accepted, I rarely talk about the inherent strength it takes to be a small business owner on Long Island in this uncertain economy and these uncertain times. But I’m also rarely moved to tears by the obstacles, vision, and fortitude of one’s story like I was when I sat down with Stacey Wohl, owner of Cause Café in Fort Salonga.
My first impression was of warmth. It’s cozy with its merrily crackling fire, rich and earthy tones, French antique-style furniture, and twinkling lights. Framed pictures line the walls, country tchotchkes the shelves, and gorgeous pastries—from imported croissants to homemade cupcakes and fresh-baked rolls and scones—greet you at first glance to make you feel immediately at ease. The scent of lusciously and locally roasted, small-batch Our Coffee with a Cause—the root of Wohl’s enterprise—wafts in heavenly fashion through the air as homey, slightly muffled sounds of metal utensils hard at work soothes from the kitchen. Conversation is muted and slow, patience and kindness perceptible in its cadences.
As organic as it felt, every loving touch of this comforting ambience is intentional. Each detail has cause to be there: autism.
It’s a concern that hits close to home for many Americans today. One in 68 children in this country are identified as falling within the spectrum, according to the CDC, and the number continues to rise by 10-17 percent annually. An estimated one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder each year, a genetic and environmental disability than can range in severity to affect brain development, motor coordination, attention span and physical ability of over three million individuals in the country (Autism Speaks).
For Wohl, the proverbial lightning struck twice. Both of Stacey’s children, café co-owners Brittney and Logan, have been diagnosed with serious forms of autism. And as they grow, so did Wohl’s concern about the scarcity of job opportunities for them—as they aged out of what is often expensive but desperately needed schools and assistance. This fear over the future of her children reached a head when she and her ex-husband separated, bills mounted up, and medication met meager insurance in 2012.
A lesser woman might have crumbled under these challenges. Not Wohl. She sprang into action and channeled tumult into motivation with Our Coffee with a Cause, a wholesale coffee business whose mission is to help fund employment and philanthropy for those with disabilities.
Now, with Cause Café, she reaches even further. In this charming North Shore restaurant, she not only aims to teach professional and life skills to even more young adults with special needs, but to help acclimate them in a low-stress environment to everyday interactions and raise general awareness for the extraordinary people she mentors.
With her mixed staff, it becomes easy to bridge awareness, training, service and quality. “As a parent of autistic children, it can be difficult to go out. Not everyone understands, and you don’t always have a chance to explain or ask for tolerance,” she said. “I wanted to create a safe space, where people can talk to each other and enjoy a good, healthy, from-scratch meal in a comfortable setting.”
This physical environment is critically important to her. “Special needs children can have a lot of processing problems,” she said. “They don’t like bright lights, so we keep it soft and natural here. I designed it so that everything is homey, from local antiques to furnishing from actual homes.”
Even her welcome to every customer feels like a homecoming, her wide smile as broad as if they were invited guests to her own residence.
Her daughter—and inspiration—does the same, despite her inability to communicate verbally. Under a shock of beautifully sprightly curls are beatific bright blue eyes that radiate genuine happiness. Her enthusiasm is unbridled, leading to Wohl’s need for oversight as Brittney’s hands flutter rapidly, touching, grabbing, pointing. But what I observed was a customer response that restores faith in humanity.
What Wohl calls “typical” guests react with patience and kind inquisitiveness once they learn about the café’s mission of integration. Families of those with special needs children begin exchanging information and stories, feeling less alone with every word. Some come in with relieved gratitude as they ask for more information about internships. Others, like manager Sean Powers, were drawn to the attraction of being part of a legacy, “a contribution to the community,” as he enthusiastically puts it, “because to be a part of this is very special” for compassionate people like him looking for a good cause to get behind.
Meanwhile, all connect over food that is as noteworthy as the cause the café serves.
A menu featuring organic, local produce and products—including favorite recipes donated by the previous business; they, too, were excited about Cause Café’s goals—is delightful and seasonal.
“It’s totally collaborative,” said Chef Alex Alvino. “We all riff off each other, making it an eclectic menu designed by our staff, including our special needs team members,” he said humbly. This includes the Thanksgiving Dinner Waffles that have been added to the menu for this fall. Brittney became enamored of waffles recently, which got the crew thinking. From there sprang fresh vegetable-studded savory stuffing waffles—indulgent with just the tiniest hint of confectioner’s sugar in the batter—topped with fire-roasted in-house turkey breast, homemade gravy, and a raspberry-cranberry reduction (“My idea!” Powers chimed in playfully), all accompanied with whipped sweet potatoes. Had with a cup of the signature coffee in front of the fireplace and shared with Brittney and Wohl herself, it was a plate as joyful as the company I shared.
Although this special isn’t gluten-free, many items on the menu are, such as the baked-on-premises muffins and fresh salads. “Many people with autism suffer from digestive issues, too,” said Wohl. “And I think it’s important for us to be an inclusionary place—not just for special needs but for dietary ones as well. Healthful eating and premium sourcing is important for all of us.”
In this kitchen, you’ll find no preservatives, but plenty of organic eggs for adorably fluffy omelets and produce culled from local farmers markets when in season. The coffee is roasted in Brooklyn in small batches to her specifications after years of experience in that industry. The from-scratch salted brownies are made with dark chocolate and rich with chunks, and the chocolate chip cookies are buttery, soft and bursting with balanced flavor. For convenience, the coffee has been sold online for delivery since the brand’s inception and in-store since the café opened, and the latter two will soon be available wholesale and (fingers crossed!) at local retailers, along with energy bars featuring their house granola and oatmeal raisin cookies.
This is an ambitious move for the entrepreneur, but despite increasing hardship, Wohl has only grown more optimistic and set on being the change she wants to see—and quickly. “There are just too few options and training programs for those with disabilities, too few jobs, and not enough immersion with everyday people,” she confided, her eyes welling with unnoticed tears. Her voice breaks from the sheer emotion as she continued, “There is ability in disability, and my greatest hope is that the community will rise and support Cause Café.”
It’s now mine, too.