Peg Botto and Harrison McInnis are the dynamic chef duo behind Cosmic Cafe and Cider House, located inside Lloyd Hall Rec Center along Boathouse Row. The business partners have worked together for 12 years, but have been friends for decades. Together they bring food straight from the farm to the table, provide healthy options that are made from scratch and are served fresh and fast. But Cosmic Cafe is more than just smoothies, wraps and fresh baked bread. The cafe provides community to the rowers, cyclists, dog enthusiasts and walkers who frequent the area, while fulfilling a much broader mission.
“That place is so chaotic and it’s so busy and the food is just fantastic,” says Susan Toler, a longtime rower and frequent customer at the Cafe, “but they are creating a life or helping to create a life for a lot of people.”
Toler, a disabilities rights attorney, nominated Harrison and McInnis for the Good Souls Project because they share a common focus—empowering individuals with disabilities.
A café on a mission.
Cosmic Cafe employs adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Botto, McInnis and their staff provide job and life skills training, as well as a compassionate environment. Botto says of the 35 employees on staff, 25 have some type of special need.
“They are the best employees and we couldn’t run the cafe without them,” says Botto, “we are a family here.”
The idea for the mission makes sense. Botto is more than just a chef. In the 1970s, while a student at Montgomery County Community College, the Norristown native worked with individuals recently released from Pennhurst State School and Hospital. Then, after getting her degree in human services from University of West Florida, Botto spent the 1980s managing group homes for people with special needs. When the paperwork became overwhelming, Botto decided to go to culinary school, but that early experience stuck with her.
“After six months of them being out, some of them were able to go to the store, make [money], live their lives,” says Botto referring to the people she helped after they were released from Pennhurst, “some of them shouldn’t even have been [in the hospital] and I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”
“We believe that everyone deserves a chance to work and earn a living,” says McInnis, “and Peg has helped me realize just how many things you can do to make life a little better for people.”
The cafe is bustling and lines of people waiting to get food is non-stop, especially during the warmer months. Botto and McInnis say their secret to success is patience and flexibility with their staff. They work to find a role within the cafe that is a good fit. Then, they help each employee establish a routine that helps them thrive.
“Everyone here is dedicated, focused, friendly, brave and not afraid to show courage, especially in the face of chaos,” says Tyheed Roane, 32.
The University City High School and Philadelphia Community College grad has been at the cafe for seven and a half years. He started out as a dishwasher and now, he’s a linchpin to the entire business.
“He came in one day and said, ‘I’d like to work here,’” says Botto, who hired Roane as a dishwasher, but said he wasn’t very good at it. “We put him on the smoothie station where he really started to shine.”
Eventually, Roane started making juices. Botto says he went to the library, did his own research and pitched ideas for recipes, expanding the Cafe’s options. Now Roane, who is autistic, does crowd control, he can run the register and make sandwiches too- all while manning the smoothie and juice stations.
“He can do everything,” says Botto, “he comes in and gets the cafe ready for me.”
When told about his essential role, Roane, says he loves his work, but remains humble.
“I don’t like the attention and I don’t want to give myself an inflated ego,” he says.
Botto says some of the employees work close to full time, others only work a few hours a day, a couple of days a week. She says her team works to figure out just how much each person is able to do and gives them the space to do it.
A community that’s out of this world.
“Peg has really tried to foster a place for people with special needs of all types,” says Adam Moldovar, a manager at the cafe. “Anything from physical to mental to other types of disability have sort of a place where they can come and do a little bit of work, make a little money, get a little independence.”
Moldovar, has autism spectrum disorder, but is very high functioning. He’s a manager and third in command at the cafe and helps to train new employees.
“Sometimes they need a little bit more help, sometimes they need a little bit more kindness,” he says, “sometimes they don’t need anything and with my background, with the autism and all that, I do understand this a little bit more so I’m able to sort of push people in the right direction of how to help everyone else more effectively.”
Moldovar says Botto was patient with him. He says he can be very disorganized, but she worked with him to establish a routine. He says the Cafe also stuck with him when he had to take a leave of absence a couple of times to stabilize his housing situation. He says the flexibility helped him stick around. Now Moldovar, who also graduated from culinary school and is a trained chef, has been able to stay at the Cafe for a decade.
“My only complaint is that Peg’s heart is just a little too big,” he says, “she’s like a second mom to me.”
The mission of helping and providing work for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities has been baked into every endeavor Botto has been involved in. In 2018, she founded the Cosmic Foundation, to formalize their work. Now, they recruit and hire individuals with development disabilities, providing life and skills training that works well in the cafe and beyond. While some employees go on to successful careers at restaurants and in other industries, many stay because of the compassionate community built at Cosmic Cafe.
“I’ve seen so many go on to corporate owned jobs- like a chain [restaurant]- and some do really well,” says Botto, “but sometimes if a manager changes- they’ll get fired even if they have been there for four years.”
Botto wants companies to do more, to find patience and spaces for inclusion.
“Everyone deserves opportunity,” she says.
More than just a job.
Cosmic Cafe does more than just provide work for its employees. Botto says she saves money all year to take a large portion of her staff on vacation every February. So far, they’ve gone to Jamaica, Mexico and Costa Rica. The next trip on the schedule– Punta Cana.
“That was just one of those amazing experiences that I’m going to remember forever,” says Moldovar, of the trip to Costa Rica. “I was just glad I had my passport.”
Botto pays for the travel, accommodations, and an excursion.
“We go and they can do whatever they want,” says Botto.
Cosmic Cafe also allows employees to eat for free and Botto says any leftovers are given to the homeless. She saves money and keeps her full staff on the payroll, even during the slow season. The Café also hosts a New Year’s Day Celebration for the community it serves.
When asked why she does it all, Botto’s eyes filled with tears:
“Because I can,” she says, “I am blessed…don’t make me cry…it’s not about the money, it’s about all of them.”
If you know someone who has performed an act of kindness, whether it be big or small and you think they serve as an example of compassion, generosity and service, nominate them here: whyy.org/goodsoulsform.