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SawmillTea And Coffee Co. A New Model For Rural Business

Young moms are visiting on a comfy couch while a child plays nearby. Two teenagers shoot pool. A small group of older women chat over coffee. At the table next to them a young woman reads aloud to a man in a wheelchair.

The rich aroma of coffee and a lingering scent of a roast beef lunch fill the air.

It’s a typical afternoon at “the Sawmill” in Boissevain, this southwestern Manitoba town’s newly opened chic-cosy coffee and tea house on Main Street.

NOT FOR PROFIT

Coffee and baked goods sales are brisk, but the sign on the entrance “no purchase necessary, come in and relax” is what this place is really all about.

Boissevain’s Sawmill Tea and Coffee Co., which opened in June, is a revenue-earning business, but the key return on investment is building social connections.

It is run entirely as a not-for-profit enterprise, owned and operated by Prairie Partners Inc. a not-for-profit agency in Boissevain working with persons with intellectual disabilities.

Prairie Partners Inc. has long operated The Handcrafters here, a full-scale woodworking shop, selling furniture and other wood crafts through a small gift shop.

Two years ago their agency was looking for new ideas for programs to offer their clients, and new ways to raise much-needed revenues for the nonprofi t organization, explains Prairie Partners’ executive director Jason Dyck.

“We were looking for ways to sort of reinvent ourselves, ” he says.

Prairie Partners turned to the community for ideas, and Boissevain had one.

What their town needed was a good coffee shop, family-friendly place and open to all, people said. And open evenings. Small towns like theirs had only the gas station or the bar, and the lack of places for local youth to go concerned residents.

Boissevain also knew from experience, however, that it was risky for a private enterprise to try such a venture. Smaller centres can be challenging business environments and other tea rooms, a bookstore and even an art gallery tried here haven’t stayed open over the years.

“So as we kept looking at this, we said ‘let’s incorporate those needs,’” Dyck said.

“We” ultimately included not only staff of Prairie Partners, but many Boissevain groups and individuals.

NEW MAIN STREET PRESENCE

They relied heavily on volunteers and donations. Local teens volunteered to paint the facility while other community residents volunteered considerable time to furnish and decorate the place.

Members of the RCMP detachment installed the flooring. All the furniture was donated, from the new leather couches and chairs to the handmade pine tables and chairs built by The Handcrafters’ staff.

The Prairie Partners Inc. offices and The Handcrafters workshop were adjoined to the building in which the coffee shop is now housed. The 2,500-sq.- ft. space was previously occupied by a thrift store operated by the agency and a local church group.

A sign posted outside lists about 50 supporters of the venture.

“The thing that makes this possible is that essentially people want services and opportunities in the community where they live,” Dyck said.

What they now have is an attractive Main Street presence from which the entire community benefits, and whose long-term viability doesn’t hinge on turning a profit. As a social enterprise, other returns on investment are sought.

“It’s about developing social connections and helping develop social skills for people with intellectual disabilities as well,” said Dyck.

“What we basically did was create a neutral environment for people in the community so that anybody from any walk of life could come in here and feel this is just a place where I can relax.”

The Handcrafters’ gift shop is now open longer hours. Bookshelves are stocked with used books for sale. A $5 lunch offered at cost packs the place most lunch hours. Several concerts have been held since opening in June. A Christmas community Nativity scene is planned here for next month.

The shop also now offers the agency’s clients a workplace opportunity to earn valuable food-service skills that the private sector otherwise is challenged to offer.

Two full-time staffers and about a dozen volunteers additionally help run the place, with proceeds from sales at the coffee shop helping to pay the salaries of their paid staff. The rest is revenue for Prairie Partners’ program budgets.

The coffee and tea house takes its place alongside other Main Street businesses without directly competing with any of them.

The business community of Boissevain was very supportive of this, adds Dyck.

“They’re very cognizant of the overall health of the community as a key part of the success of the community,” he said. [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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