It’s not your average restaurant by any stretch of the imagination, which is why the COCO Café, located in the tiny community of Cedar just south of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island’s east coast, has become one of our favourites.
COCO is the acronym for the Cedar Opportunities Co-operative, which is the organization conceived in 2007 by a small group of parents whose families included young adults with developmental disabilities. What began as a dream to be able to employ those young people in a supportive manner has bloomed into a thriving café and catering business.
Centrally located in Cedar in a tiny strip mall, the COCO Café has become a community hub that always offers comfort, a warm welcome and extraordinarily good food. The place is awash in natural light and the cheerful busy-ness that greets those who venture in is infectious, brightening the gloomiest of winter days. You can plunk yourself down at one of the standard café tables, or take advantage of the comfortable living room environment set up at the back of the coffee shop where there are arm chairs and sofas on which to relax, books to read, a fireplace to cozy up to.
The menu, posted on a chalkboard, is not elaborate or particularly high-end, but the food that comes out of the kitchen is always unique, tasty and interesting – no boring run-of-the-mill flavours to be found here, which is what appeals to us (and hundreds of others) so much. Sure, there are items like wraps on the bill of fare, but they include great flavour combinations like butter chicken, brown rice, cilantro and mango riata. The addictive signature soup is a curried coconut vegetable number that’s a meal all on its own, and combined with one of the tasty paninis and a beverage you’ll find yourself fuelled up for many hours into the day. Every time we visit the cafe the menu and the services have been expanded a little thanks to the supervision of Red Seal Chef Melanie Cadden, who also serves as general manager and jack-of-all-trades. While it is generally acknowledged that no one can be all things to all people, COCO takes a pretty good stab at it, offering everything from gluten-free to vegan options, specialty coffees to kids menus. The café also offers free wireless internet and a dog-friendly outdoor patio.
These days the COCO Café employs 22 staff members, 13 of whom have developmental disabilities. Work shifts are organized depending on the ability of each individual and range anywhere from two hours a day to full-time. There is no government funding supporting this going concern – café sales, grants, fund-raisers, farmers market sales and catering jobs help pay the bills and salaries, along with in-house sales of such items as frozen meals and soups and hand-made pot pies. Everything that is served at the COCO Café is made on site, and things are expanding so quickly that this autumn the organization has taken over an adjoining 600 square feet of space to accommodate its catering kitchen.
Basically, there is nothing that we don’t like about the COCO Café – the concept and execution are impressive, the ambiance is all about comfort and welcoming, the food is head-and-tails above most neighbourhood coffee shops. The fact that by eating there we are helping to support a very worthwhile cause and community is just the icing on the cake.