An excellent piece by Luke Williams!
It is just past noon on Friday October 5th, 2012, when Andrew Miller strolls into Unity Market Café, the community hub in downtown Barrie, Ontario that he and many others have spent the past two years crafting into a reality. To the average visitor, Unity appears to be a cozy little coffee shop with an earthy feel to it and rich art adorning its walls. But to Miller, the creator of a local not-for profit organization which uses Unity as its corporate headquarters, the café represents the dreams he has already achieved and a stepping stone to his vision for the future.
Back in the summer of 2010, Miller and his long-time friend Shane Dennis found themselves spending 40 hours a week picking carrots on a friend’s organic farm. Working away, the two talked of the importance of environmental sustainability, community involvement and the need to provide the local hungry with donations of quality food. These chats led Miller to start a not-for-profit organization called Back to Basics Social developments, which tackles all of these challenges, and more.
Since its inception, Back to Basics has donated 35,000 pounds of organic food to local charities. But getting the food out the door, and the community interested in sustainability through events like the annual Barrie Ecofest (which Back to Basics has helped host over the past couple years) hasn’t come without cost. Miller and Dennis needed some way to raise money to keep the organization working. So in 2011, the two fulfilled their dream of opening a café that could provide the community with a place to come together, enjoy fresh food, local art and music and – most importantly – continue to support Back to Basics with its proceeds.
Christina Romita-Taylor is a 25-year-old personal trainer and community activist living in Barrie. She understands the vital nature of Unity’s support. When Christina was six, her mother began organizing a thanksgiving dinner for the area’s hungry. It has become an annual tradition that the trainer/activist and her mother continue to this day, along with volunteering for the Barrie Food Bank. She feels that donations like the ones made by Unity show the strength of the community and stresses the importance of receiving fresh, organic food. Often, what is donated from other sources has expired because people clean out their closets and find things that have been there for a few years. It’s important for people to get good quality food - not just stuff that’s been left in the cupboard.”
Growing Unity Café as a unique community centre, a business and a way to further the initiatives of Back to Basics are equally important goals for the two young entrepreneurs. Expanding Unity’s profit margin will enable Miller and Dennis to extend the scope of their charity work. The two are always looking for ways to give back. A current venture (still in the planning stages) is to recycle shipping containers and convert them into shelters for the homeless. Miller admits to wanting to see other chapters of the coffee house develop across the country; possibly around the globe. This creates the challenge of maintaining the café’s unique nature and message of giving to those in need while expanding the focus to a larger scale. Miller feels the answer lies in having the ability to effectively mesh their business model of inclusion, sustainability and promotion of artistic expression with the different cultural nuances of those areas into which Unity expands. As long as each new café adheres to the message Unity preaches, it will be allowed to adapt styles to meet local tastes.
Miller and Dennis seem to be on to something. In a world of ultra-hip, cookie-cutter coffee chains found on every street corner, it’s refreshing to find a place where creativity is encouraged by lining the café walls with work from local artisans and by inviting the area’s musicians and poets in to share their craft. One such poet is Gloria Breaker. Over her fair-trade tea and a colorful pizza, she recalls stumbling upon Unity one night while driving through town with a friend “It has a vibe and a community feel to it that just can’t be duplicated,” Breaker exclaims. “Unlike the large coffee-chains where they quickly forget your name and face, chances are if you come to Unity more than once, they’ll remember what name to put on your cup!”
And few people know this better than Laurie, a regular at Unity. When asked, Laurie doesn’t remember how long she has been coming to the coffee house. Chief cook Caleigh yells from the kitchen that it has been ten months. “This place is my ‘Cheers,” Laurie chuckles, referring to the show that opens with a song including the lines, “Where everybody knows your name,” and “where they’re always glad you came….”