Story by Pam Higginbotham. Photos by Stephanie Daniels.
Ruth Thomson, the founder of Hugs Cafe, discovered her passion for adults with special needs while working at New Day In-Home and Respite Care in Colorado. A move to Texas brought an opportunity to combine her love of cooking and her love of people—a perfect recipe! For ten years, Ruth enjoyed teaching cooking classes at Market Street designed for adults with special needs. In addition to sharing her cooking skills, she also taught them valuable skills to enhance their independence and increase their confidence. A beautiful vision of a restaurant that employed special needs adults came to Ruth in a form of a dream two nights in a row. She decided to share the dreams with her husband. Even though they were only a few years from retirement and did not have any restaurant experience, they both knew they needed to follow this vision. Maria Caccavale, Hugs Cafe Manager, had worked with Ruth for years at Market Street and had also fallen in love with the students in the cooking class. It was a natural choice for her to go on this new and exciting journey with Ruth.
One Sunday morning, Ruth was planning to attend her usual early church service but slept in and decided to go to the late service instead. In an amazing turn of events a lady named Kim sat in front of her instead of at her usual spot across the church. During the Passing of the Peace, as is traditional in the Episcopal church, Ruth said to Kim she needed a building for Hugs Cafe. Kim just so happened to have the perfect location available for lease in downtown McKinney. “Ruth told me the minute she walked in, she fell to her knees and knew it was the perfect place with an open kitchen,” says Lauren Smith, Director of Development at Hugs Cafe. “It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too small. It had everything that they were going to need to make Hugs Cafe a concept. In six months, they raised the rest of the money.” This put the Cafe dream in motion!
While forming the board of directors and advisory board for the new organization, the idea for the name Hugs Cafe came about. It originally stood for Helping Us Grow Strong but then changed to Hope, Understanding, Grace, and Success. Those words define the key values of the Cafe as they provide meaningful employment, purpose and training. Another cornerstone of the Cafe’s mission is to help people get to where they want to go.
Hugs Cafe has been open for five years now and employs 23 Teammates. The term Teammates is used since everyone works together as a team with their combined talents and abilities. Lauren says, “One of the key concepts behind our mission is job carving. What we do is we look at a person’s abilities and we find a job where they have an opportunity to be successful. We work with them one on one with job coaches so that they can accomplish new skills, but they’re starting from a place where mistakes are accepted gracefully and success is not required.”
There has been no turnover at all of the Cafe Teammates and there is currently a waiting list to become part of this special team. Ruth and Maria have maintained a good relationship with the McKinney school district from their days at Market Street, and now 75-80% of their Teammates come from the school district. When asked what their job means to them, the Teammates use words like family, purpose, home, fun and joy. This sense of purpose and belonging is important not only to the Teammates but also to their families. Feeling like part of a family is a very special element of Hugs Cafe. “Within two weeks of COVID happening, we went around to every single Teammate and wrote on their sidewalks with chalk that we missed them. We received emails and texts from parents saying this actually brought tears to their eyes. This is just going back to what Hugs is all about and that is the family aspect of it” says Maria.
Hugs Cafe has announced they are expanding this year and now have an online e-commerce store. This program is called Hugs Fulfilled and allows Hugs merchandise, such as coffee mugs and jarred jams, jellies and chutneys, to be shipped all over the country. This provides more employment opportunities and helps promote national awareness for what they do. Hugs Greenhouse is now open as well and helps provide additional employment positions. The greenhouse offers a variety of perennial and annual plants that thrive in North Texas. They have many plant varieties that are hand grown and nurtured by all of the Teammates. “We absolutely dream of taking our one cafe in McKinney, and making that a concept that can be replicated in other cities,” says Lauren. “We would love to expand our greenhouse as well to expand our employment opportunities there. So, expansion in all ways is what we’re definitely going to be about for the next five years and making sure that we’re providing some really meaningful jobs.”
When COVID-19 became a pandemic, it was explained to the Teammates that a sickness was going around that was bad. It helped that when all of the Teammates were trained, they received their food handlers certification. In that training, they learned about airborne illnesses and disease so when COVID happened Maria already had an avenue to talk to them about it. Hugs Cafe has had a perfect health report inspection. “Protocols here are taken seriously,” Lauren says. “We are a program that is going to be perfect when it comes to cleanliness standards so that was a conversation that our team really took seriously and we already had the tools to have that conversation. Also, health is a priority so germs were definitely a conversation as well as giving people their space. I can say that our team has done an amazing job getting readjusted and we have now been able to reincorporate our cafe staff. Most of them that are able to come back to work are here at least one day a week, getting re-acclimated to their jobs.” Maria adds, “out of the 23 Teammates, I believe we have 20 back and there are three that are unable to come back due to underlying issues. Everyone will be back to their regular schedule soon.”
The unemployment rate for the United States has definitely gone up during this pandemic. People have also been isolated without friends and also without opportunities. Lauren commented on this saying, “everyone needs to realize that before this happened in Texas, 65% of adults with special needs that want to work were unemployed and stuck at home because they had no opportunity. These people were forgotten about before COVID ever happened. When you’re home without an opportunity, that is the reality for 65% of Texas that are adults with disabilities. So, that number to us remains unacceptable, which is why we continue to advocate for what we do and this period has been such a learning opportunity for us to recognize the value and part of our team and how hard we’re going to work to make sure that everyone has meaningful employment.”
Bringing a smile and a sense of being part of something special to both the Teammates and their customers is something Hugs Cafe does well. They provide confidence and a sense of purpose for adults with special needs while serving a community who welcomes them with open arms. Hugs Cafe provides more than just a great meal. It provides hugs, warmth and a joy that comes with being part of a special and caring community.
Hugs Cafe is currently open for business, in person and online. The Teammates are ready to serve you a Lucky Lauren Peach Gobbler sandwich, with a side of picnic potato salad, and a s’mores brownie. You can check out the whole menu at hugscafe.org.