Walking into this little lunchroom, the atmosphere is cheerful and welcoming. I was greeted at the door and offered a table, a standard at any restaurant. But what makes this spot so unique are not the blue-painted walls or the quaint, minimalist décor. Rather, it’s the staff – 25 young adults –who either have Down syndrome, Autism, or an intellectual disability.
Brownies & Downies was originally conceptualised in the Netherlands in 2010, with its aim being to train and employ people with disabilities and provide them with a sense of independence. After discovering how limited the employment facilities are for those with intellectual disabilities in South Africa, Wendy Vermeulen, passionate about the concept and its mission, decided to launch Brownies & Downies in Cape Town. Upon my visit, I had the opportunity to chat to co-founder and manager Wade Schultz, who provided plenty of insight and background on the initiative.
Existing under a non-profit organisation called Our Second Home, the Brownies & Downies coffee shop officially opened in February 2016. Permanent staff such as baristas, chefs and waiters are employed, and also assist in training the young adults in the various areas of work. And although the young adults are encouraged to try their hand at each of the jobs, Wade and the team often appoint them according to their strengths and preferences – some enjoy interacting with guests and acting as runners, while others are more inclined to work the coffee machines or do the cleaning.
Personally, I was so inspired listening to Wade elaborate on the vision and mission for Brownies & Downies. By creating purpose and pride in the workplace, this initiative is able to empower people with special needs who would otherwise be reliant on their parents or care-takers. And what’s more, the restaurant serves as a bridge between the general public and those affected by intellectual disabilities.
“Five years ago, I would have been too scared to speak to someone with an intellectual disability for fear of offending them,” recalls Wade.
To some, the name has even come across as somewhat derogatory. However, Wade explains that the original founders in Netherlands came up with it by asking for suggestions from the parents of children with Down syndrome. So instead of criticising or shying away from what we are either uncomfortable with or lack the knowledge of, Brownies & Downies opens the door to conversations we would not have otherwise had and shifts society’s thinking towards one of acceptance.
There are numerous ways you can be apart of making a difference alongside Brownies & Downies. For one, spread the word. And if you’re looking to donate or sponsor, visit the outreach page on their website to find the necessary information and banking details. Lastly, I would highly recommend stopping by their venue in Long Street and supporting the shop – their brownies are absolutely delicious.