Cooinda Terang and The Little Acorn Cafe

For a great cappuccino, you need to head to The Little Acorn Café.

It is Friday lunch time in the small country town of Terang, Victoria, and I am happily seated at a table by the window in The Little Acorn Cafe. While enjoying a delicious cappuccino, I look around at the fresh white walls, wooden floors and the vintage chairs and dining tables set before a fireplace. I hear happy and relaxed conversations all around me. One of the staff comes over, and with a big smile, introduces herself and asks if there is anything else I need. I smile back: this is a warm and welcoming place to be.

While The Little Acorn offers a tasty and healthy light-lunch menu, spoil-yourself homemade-slice options, and fantastic, friendly service, what sets this cafe apart is the story behind how it came to life.

Now a vibrant part of community life, The Little Acorn was once the long-time dream of carers and staff of Cooinda Terang, a disability services provider for adults and their families in the surrounding communities. In line with the Values and Mission Statement of Cooinda, the café is a social training opportunity for its residents and participants. Cooinda staff work alongside participants, supervising them in a range of hospitality tasks, including preparation, plating up of food, making coffee, operating the till, waiting tables, setting up and cleaning up.

‘The café is all about giving participants the chance of working in and maintaining a place in their own community,’ says dedicated café manager and long-time staff member at Cooinda, Jenny O’Keeffe. ‘This is all about participants feeling valued and respected within their community and having a chance to do the same things other people do.’

Cooinda’s participants were enthusiastic about the café. To ensure opportunities were available to all, a roster was developed, and participants given the flexibility to choose their activities.

As part of their training, all staff and participants have attained a Level 1 certificate in food safety and food handling. Tasks are assigned based on what participants can do, not on what they can’t do. Once a participant is able to do a task, they are given an opportunity to try something new. ‘No greater importance is placed on one role over another,’ says Jenny. ‘The focus is on increasing personal and living skills in the kitchen, as well as their social skills working with customers of the café.’

The Little Acorn café came to life through the efforts of the Cooinda team and the Cooinda Board of Management. The idea for the café had been on the drawing board for some time but when the lease on the Maternity and Child Health Services building came up, they could turn the idea into a reality. With the full backing of the Board, an application was made to council for the lease and upgrade of the premises. ‘The Corangamite Shire have been very supportive of the initiative that provides an opportunity for Cooinda participants to have valued roles within their community,’ says Cooinda CEO, Janice Harris. ‘We have only had positive feedback about the food and hospitality but also the “vibe” of the café as being a positive and welcoming atmosphere to be in.’ In a generous move, the local council agreed to waive the rent for the first year of the lease, helping to offset start-up costs. This has been particularly helpful, as no assisted funding is available for the project.

Local businesses such as the Terang Op shop, Terang Co-Op and Western District Employment Access have also made significant donations toward establishment costs, giving the café its initial boost. Since opening in mid-December 2016, The Little Acorn is run as any other café business is run, relying on trade and sales and a strong customer base. Being situated in the main street next to the local playground, and with an abundance of passing trade, business has been picking up, and things are looking good. ‘This wouldn’t have happened without the support of the Terang locals,’ Jenny says, adding that the generous spirit of the community has made all the difference.

The strong links with the community extend into the retail space set aside for craft work and locally-made produce, and the works of local artists hang on the walls, all for sale. Students from the local high schools studying hospitality also have an opportunity to work at the café, gaining valuable social and operations experience in a café environment.

‘It is wonderful to see the sense of community here at the café,’ says Jenny. ‘The customers have come to know the participants personally, there is a real community connection. I’m so proud to be a part of this café and this community, and the opportunities given to our participants.

‘They have got their wings and they are flying.’

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