“I think it’s important to ‘Keep London Local’ because it keeps us different and unique… Whether its a non-profit, or a social enterprise, or a local independent business, I think that is what makes the city different, and people want to come here because of it”

Justine Downing has been with YOU for two and half years as the Social Enterprise Business Liaison. We sat down (virtually) with her to learn more about the story behind this Downtown London business.

The YOU Made It Cafe on the corner of Richmond and York Street was opened in 2011. This flagship location is used as a training hub for youth in the skills program that the non-for-profit provides. Local youth rotate through positions in the cafe, receiving front of house, customer service, and back of house experience.  Downing explains that while “you might not think of it when you order a sandwich…in the back of the cafe, there is a youth who is being mentored on how to make that sandwich and work in a kitchen. They’re learning something that can contribute to the rest of their career and the rest of their life.” 

Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU) was started in 1984 as a community advisory group, and has grown to be a non-profit organization with 6 locations across London Middlesex. With 5 different social enterprises under their umbrella; YOU Made It Café, catering, Mushed by YOU preserves, YOU Made It Woodshop, and gift baskets & boxes, YOU is committed to helping any youth that walk through their doors. “It wildly ranges, from highschool students to Fanshawe and Western students who just need resume help or interview skills. We support at-risk youth, whether they’re at risk of homelessness, at risk of developing bad habits… or couch-surfing and don’t have access to stable housing”. 

The Youth Action Center, next door to the cafe, is also operated by YOU and provides access to showers, laundry, counselling, and more. Food from the Cafe is available for those who have gone without a meal. “There are quite a lot of youth in the homeless population and that number is growing and growing”. Opposite the cafe on Richmond street, the new Joan’s Place will also be unveiled soon, and will be dedicated to housing young mothers and vulnerable women with children. “The footprint is already good, but with the expansion of what is coming up and growing, we’re really going to have a little pocket of downtown… We have created our own little campus of supports.” Downing says, which has contributed to the downtown community as a whole.

Justine Downing is nostalgic when it comes to downtown London. “I just love downtown in general. I grew up in St. Thomas… but I remember my dad bringing me downtown London as a kid to go to the coffee shops, and just feeling so special and important to be in the downtown.” The cafe chose downtown as their location to be easily accessible. “We recognize the clientele is downtown and we wanted to support the area… And, in turn, the downtown community supports these youth”. The skills program also supports other non-for-profits, including Meals on Wheels London. Youth work to prep, cook, package, and label everything for the daily fresh meals for the Meals on Wheels service. Downing agrees it is “A partnership that makes sense on both sides”.

“I think it’s important to ‘Keep London Local’ because it keeps us different and unique… Whether its a non-profit, or a social enterprise, or a local independent business, I think that is what makes London different, and people want to come here because of it”
– Justine Downing, YOU

When asked if there is anything Justine wants Londoners to know about the YOU Made It Cafe, she replied “We want them to know the story behind it and the warmth of that. Why we are operating, who is making their food, and the difference this is making in the downtown and for London youths”.  The YOU Made It Cafe is just one of the social enterprises that Youth Opportunities Unlimited has created in the city of London, and it really does combine the best of both worlds. 

“Not only are you getting an affordable, delicious, healthy meal or a great coffee, but you’re helping to support someone who is learning and growing towards their goals. […] It is really awesome, and really different. And the folks that come to our cafe and support us get that! And the more people that get that story, the better!” 

We couldn’t agree more.