A Cafe with a Cause

The Cafe at 407 in Liverpool, NY is more than meets the eye. The charming cafe is owned and operated by Ophelia’s Place, a dynamic nonprofit organization that aims to support individuals affected by body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ophelia’s Place’s mission is not only evident in their services, but also in their public cafe: the Cafe at 407 shines a needed local spotlight on body image and mental health.

It’s 10 am on a Friday morning, and the Cafe at 407 in Liverpool, NY is doling out its third batch of coffee. At first glance, the cafe seems little more than a popular suburban coffeeshop: a group of retirees grasp mugs at a table in the sunshine, college students hunch over their laptops, and professionals conduct business meetings over croissants. A closer look, however, reveals the cafe’s richer purpose: the walls are decorated with empowering phrases like ‘every body is beautiful’ and ‘how to create community’, and a nondescript white door at the rear leads to offices instead of a kitchen. The Cafe at 407 is affectionately known as ‘A Cafe with a Cause’; it is the community-building and revenue-generating arm of the nonprofit Ophelia’s Place. Ophelia’s Place predates the Cafe at 407 by about 6 years; Mary Ellen Clausen, the Executive Director of Ophelia’s Place, founded the organization in 2002 after struggling to find local resources for her two daughters, both battling eating disorders. She was shocked by the complete absence of outpatient programs for eating disorders in Onondaga County. Both of her daughters ultimately traveled out of state to receive help. Clausen’s deep frustration and parental pain led her to create Ophelia’s Place.

The organization initially focused on supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders, but later broadened its mission to include body dissatisfaction. “People weren’t connecting with the term ‘eating disorders’,” explains Clausen. “The stigma and stereotypes are incredibly alienating.” Body dissatisfaction, on the other hand, is rampant in American society: one study, commissioned by Dove, found that as many as 85% of surveyed women said that they would opt of important life activities - such as trying out for a club or asking for a new project at work - if they weren’t feeling good about their bodies.

Ophelia’s Place continues to offer weekly support groups for individuals and families affected by eating disorders in partnership with the Upstate New York Eating Disorder Service. Around 2008, however, it became clear that clients needed more than siloed, in-office support. “Eating disorders, mental illness - these diseases are isolating enough,” says Clausen.

Clausen and her team envisioned a community gathering space, open to the public and struggling individuals alike, where conversations about mental health, body image, and eating disorders could spread out of offices and into everyday conversations. Clausen also wanted to get in front of the issues: “I felt like I was constantly reacting and trying to put out individual fires,” she recollects. “I was frustrated by the endless late-night calls from worried families and formal school presentations. I wanted to do something proactive.” Such a space would also meet multiple needs within the community: Liverpool notably lacked a downtown coffeeshop.

The Cafe at 407 opened in 2008 as an LLC owned and operated by Ophelia’s Place. As word spread, the Cafe quickly began to outgrow the limits of its residential kitchen. The Allyn Family Foundation and the Central New York Community Foundation both supported the cafe’s expansion in 2014, which allowed the Cafe to devote space to its burgeoning catering business. The successful capital project launched the Cafe to unexpected heights. “We didn’t have a contingency plan for that level of success,” admits Clausen. Cafe sales grew dramatically, catering requests came flooding in, and small groups started inquiring about private events.

An additional kitchen renovation in 2017 distinguished the catering business from the cafe’s daily food productions. The Cafe now offers an expanded breakfast and lunch menu as well as a diverse selection of baked goods that routinely fly off the shelves. The renovation also enabled the Cafe to host events, including a small wedding reception in early October 2017 (the bride was a former Ophelia’s Place board member). Clausen notes the tremendous revenue pull of private events: the single wedding alone netted Ophelia’s Place $3,500.

The Cafe at 407 financed 33.3% of Ophelia’s Place operating budget in 2016, testifying to the strength and sustainability of the organization’s innovative model. Yet the Cafe’s value extends far beyond capital. “Every person in this care is part of the change and validating the struggle,” says Clausen. “The people we serve - those struggling with any sort of disordered relationship to food - feel embraced here, they feel safe, and they feel welcomed.”

Clausen notes that one middle-aged woman eats as many as three of her meals at the Cafe, while an elderly man deposits monthly checks in the Cafe’s Donations Jar. It’s clear that the Cafe acts both as a refuge and a wellspring for conversations that are normally swept under the rug.

Clausen hopes that the Cafe, in conjunction with committed donations from Ophelia’s Place ‘Warriors’ and revenue from the new Circles of Change initiative, will enable the organization to cease standard fundraising efforts. The Circles of Change initiative has already demonstrated marked success: sales of Circles of Change mugs, t-shirts, and artwork contributed 15% towards the organization’s operating budget. Circles of Change was the brainchild of Clausen’s daughter, Holli, who also hopes to start an Ophelia’s Place satellite location in her hometown in Arizona. “You have to evolve,” says Clausen. “You have to always be relevant. I hope there’s a time where Ophelia’s Place services don’t need to exist, but until then we have to adapt to meet changing needs and changing times.”

1) Moss (2016). New Women’s Body Confidence is a Critical Issue Worldwide. Huffington Post UK. Accessed 9 November 2017, retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/dove-global-body-image-report_uk_5762a6a1e4b0681487dcc470

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