After a long, java-free year, coffee is coming back to the Halifax Central Library this winter.
Called Ampersand Cafe, the new coffee shop will take over the two cafe areas — one on the ground floor, another on the fifth — that were previously occupied by Pavia, a cafe operator who vacated the spaces last fall during COVID.
The cafe is being operated and opened by MetroWorks, an employment services and support agency that works with people facing barriers to employment, who will work in the cafe.
“[The library] submitted a tender there probably a year ago, and they were looking for a social enterprise to do that private service,” says Dave Rideout, CEO of MetroWorks. “We applied to the tender, and they were quite happy with that. And we’ve been running the Library Cafe at the Keshen Goodman Library for the last year and a half, so we have some experience working with libraries.”
Operating a cafe within a public library demands something of a balancing act: you want to create an attractive, comfortable atmosphere while keeping costs low to make space for lower-income customers, Rideout says.
“We’re looking at having high-end coffees available, and lots of nice tasty treats, and grab-and-go items like soups and sandwiches, those sorts of things,” Rideout says. “But we’re also very cognizant of the fact that a lot of library users are in different economic situations and can’t afford a $6 latte.
“We’re looking at getting your drip coffees, your sweets,” Rideout continues. “The kinds of things that are a little bit more cost effective, so that a single mom of two can actually go there and pick something for her kids without blowing her monthly food budget. It’s going to be really balanced that way.”
The other piece of the plan is on the employment side, MetroWorks’ unique contribution to the deal. As a social enterprise, Rideout says, one of the central targets is to help workers gain a leg up in the job market — whether working in the cafe is someone’s first job, a catalyst for a career change, or a way back into the job market after some time away.
“Our goal behind all of our business units is to provide opportunities for our clients to gain employment skills,” Rideout says.
MetroWorks plans on hiring a handful of working baristas to help with training, having them working alongside people coming up through MetroWorks’ career training program to “help them gain some employable skills in customer service and food service, and hopefully be able to help them with their career path.”
Many of the baked goods being sold there will be supplied by Stone Hearth Bakery, another of MetroWorks’ social enterprise businesses.
“It could be a youth without that much experience, it could be a new Canadian without that much Canadian experience, it could be somebody in a career transition, it could be someone with a disability,” Rideout says, of the people they’re hoping to see work in the cafe. “We work with quite a diverse group of clients here.”
Rideout is happy to see the public library take a socially conscious approach with this cafe.
“The values of the library intersect with the values of social enterprise,” he says. “All the revenues that we get from that cafe go back into the community, and supporting our organization in running the programs that we’re running.”
Rideout says an “optimistic” target for opening might be late November — but with renovations needed to the space (and the contract for that still out for tender), he’s realistically planning for delays, be they supply chain or labour-related.
Plus, COVID restrictions are still limiting — until the mask mandate is lifted, for instance, drinking is prohibited throughout most of the library. An early 2022 opening would not be unthinkable.
“Once it’s all said and done, you’ll have a nice cafe area set up on the first floor and the fifth floor,” hideout says. “All we can do is be ready for when it’s ready.”