Social Entrepreneur + Non-Profit Innovation = MadCap Cafe for Meaningful Employment

Sometimes the goals of for-profit companies and non-profit organisations are well-aligned, but can they work together on joint social enterprises to accomplish shared dreams? We talked to Anthony Cheeseman, social entrepreneur and project manager for Ermha’s MadCap Cafe, a for-profit/not-for-profit joint venture that seeks to provide meaningful employment for people with cognitive delays. We wanted to find out what it takes to combine a for-profit company with a non-profit venture to help people get back into mainstream employment.

What inspired you to work on a for-profit/not-for-profit venture like MadCap Cafe?

In 1975, my sister, Karen, at the age of six, suffered a brain injury as a result of an appendix operation gone wrong, which resulted in irreversible damage to the right side of her brain. Not only did this mean she suffered from an intellectual disability that affected her ability to read and write, but it also meant she had limited use in her left arm and leg.  Even though Karen managed to get married and have two children, she continued to struggle. In 2005, she was viciously assaulted and left for dead in her home, which resulted in additional pain and suffering. She then became a single Mum when her husband walked out in 2006.

I wanted to find a way for Karen to enter the workforce to help her feel normal – she had never worked and desperately needed social interaction with someone other than Mum. I wanted to find a way to help those who are the most disadvantaged in our community to help them regain their confidence and self esteem.

I was a business owner – a restaurant named Cheesys Cafe starting in 2005. Then in 2007, I attended a non-for-profit seminar with the aim of meeting someone who could possibly acquire my business so that I could pursue my goal of helping disadvantaged people. I attended with several people who urged me to tell my story, which I did. Following the seminar, several people spoke with me about my goals and within two weeks, one of whom was Peter Waters of Ermha (Eastern Regions Mental Health Association), an established not-for-profit organization that helps support people with severe mental illnesses or disorders. A meeting was set and I began dreaming.

MadCap Mission Statement on the wall at both cafes

Can you tell us about the connection between Ermha and MadCap Cafes?

When people start to recover from their mental illness getting a job is always a daunting task.

  • Do I or don’t I tell the employer about my illness at the interview?
  • If I do, will I get the job, or if I don’t tell them what happens if I do get the job and I suffer a relapse in my illness?

Knowing my sister’s struggles with these questions, I wanted to find a way to encourage and support people to try something new and give them opportunities to enter the mainstream workforce. With that in mind, the MadCap Cafe concept was born during my first meeting with Peter (though the name had yet to be developed).

Yes, other ideas like this had been done before but other agencies had generally tried to do it by themselves on smaller scales. This lack of big vision has led many of these social enterprises to perish. Partnerships are what make projects like this happen.

We took the idea to the Ermha board of management, and, knowing there were only two years left on the lease for Cheesys Cafe, they approved the acquisition of the Cafe for use as the business behind MadCap Cafe. We were also pleased to then receive assignment of the lease to this new venture by Dandenong Plaza Shopping Centre as no other major shopping centre chain in Australia had ever approved a lease to a not-for-profit organisation.

As we brainstormed with Ermha’s clients, we came up with the name for the Cafe. MadCap means Make A Difference Catering and Production or we make Mad Cap…puccinnos!

MadCap Cafe Fountain Gate Cafe Manager Silvia Sieber with Ermha MadCap Cafe Team Member John Spencer with his proud Mum

What types of people do you employ at the MadCap Cafes and how does employment benefit them?

Ermha’s goal is to get its clients back into meaningful employment. The decision made very early on was for the cafe to be a transitional business for the Ermha clients. The staff mix at a MadCap Cafe is currently 40% Ermha clients and 60% non-Ermha clients. The Ermha clients work approximately 30% of the total hours in the Cafe.

Clients must work a minimum of 8 hours a week and in the beginning they need more support and training in the work place. As their skills increase, their need for support decreases. From experience it can take 3 to 4 times longer to train a person who has a mental illness.

Ermha clients who show an interest in working at MadCap Cafe as part of their development plan begin their journey doing a pre-vocational program called MAP (MadCap Aspirations Pathway). Aspirations is the name of the Dandenong Day Program where Support Workers work with Ermha clients doing a range of activities and programs. Clients must complete the MAP (40 hours of pre-voc work) that includes basic coffee training, working in small hospitality teams and even doing a trial shift at the Cafe. They are also linked into Job Networks or Disability Employment Services who provide vital support and also wage subsidies.

MadCap Cafe Chef Ambassador Greg Malouf (MoMo) with Deaf employee Mark McGee who produced these cup cakes for the Fountain Gate Grand opening

What types of jobs can people get after they’ve completed the 6-9 month program?

Upon completion of the MAP program the client begins a 6 month Traineeship at MadCap Cafe knowing that the goal is for them to transition into open employment or do further studies at a college or university. A partnership has been formed with companies like Gloria Jean’s Coffee Houses who employs trainees after they have completed the trainee period. Trainees also are working in other cafes, supermarkets and even in cleaning jobs. MadCap Cafe provides well trained and skilled employees to the retail sector. Why wouldn’t businesses want to employ our people?

The community has embraced what we do. We not only change the individual’s lives but also the lives of their families who can now take holidays or go shopping because their family members are more stable.

I’m pleased to report that my sister graduated the MadCap program and has begun work in October 2010 for Wallara Australia, an organisation that employs people with Intellectual disabilities. It’s all about partnerships!

How did you get funding to start the cafes?

The Dandenong MadCap Cafe is funded and run by Ermha. Ermha is primarily funded by the State Governments Department of Human Services and in 2009/2010 assisted approximately 900 people.

However, in April 2009, with the recession upon, us the Australian Government released funding for businesses with the goal to stimulate the economy through the creation of jobs. With 3,000 applicants we were one of the 130 submissions chosen to receive funding to build another MadCap Cafe.  This Cafe opened at Westfield Shopping Centre Fountain Gate in June 2010 and currently employs a total of 30 staff. From the day it opened the store has been busy.

MadCap Cafe on Day 1 just before opening

What do you do with any profits made through the cafes?

As Ermha CEP Peter Waters says, we might be a not-for-profit but we are also a not-for-loss-business. Any profit that is made goes back into Ermha programs that help people.

What mistakes have you made along the way, and what advice would you give other social entrepreneurs like you?

Thomas Jefferson once said “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” That’s been my belief from the start. Here are a couple of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:

  • Get backing: You need the support of the organisations board of management. Ermha’s board has been amazing in the support, encouragement and patience they have shown towards this project.
  • Think big: Our goal is to have 30-40 Cafes in some of the most disadvantage communities in Australia that gives those who are the communities’ most disadvantaged opportunities that they might never get.
  • Money: The agency or not-for-profit must have not only the upfront capital but also money to keep the business afloat during the establishment phase.
  • Location is important: The Fountain Gate store is in a fantastic high traffic area. It is near a busy supermarket and away from the noisy food court.
  • Raising funds: Pay someone more experienced than you to do the big grant submissions – you’ll get better results.
  • Negotiate: Never undervalue what you do – big shopping centres need businesses like yours so make them believe that, too!
  • Getting help: Everyone loves what you do and say they will help you but when it comes to the crunch you find out who you’re true partners are
This post was written by:

Maryruth Belsey Priebe

Maryruth has been seeking the keys to environmental justice - both at home and at work - for over a decade. Growing up adjacent to wild spaces, Maryruth developed a healthy respect (and whimsical appreciation) for things non-human, but her practical mind constantly draws her down to earth to ponder tangible solutions to complex eco-problems.

With interests that range from green living to green business, sustainable building designs to organic gardening practices, ecosystem restoration to environmental health, Maryruth has been exploring and writing about earth-matters for most of her life. Of special interest is the subject of ecopsychology and the role the natural world plays in the long-term health and well-being of humanity. You can learn more about Maryruth's work at

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