If you’re a westsider who reads this magazine regularly, it’s pretty likely you’ve shopped at Nature’s Bin. For years before the 800-pound gorilla opened up around the corner, if you were looking for organic foods, natural supplements, or bulk grains and spices, this store on Sloane Avenue in Lakewood was the spot. With a distinctly granola slant, you may have seen the Bin the same way I did—a quirky little grocery store with a 70s vibe that carried hard-to-find healthy products.
Maybe you also saw it in the news a few years ago, getting press for converting an old McDonald’s next to the store into a commissary kitchen that provides prepared food for the shop and its catering operation. But, as we only recently learned, it turns out that the Bin has always been a bit more than your local organic store. Sure, there are groceries, cleaning products, and even a great selection of plants to get gardens off to a good start, but selling those items is simply one component of a grander venture.
While as a casual shopper it’s unlikely you’d notice it, Nature’s Bin is run by Cornucopia, Inc., a nonprofit organization with a mission of helping people with disabilities develop their skills and confidence, leading to sustainable employment. Cornucopia works with organizations like Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, and other entities to provide trainees with a fair wage, and a learning environment that is focused on teaching workplace fundamentals including attendance, direction following, and quality.
Cornucopia provides training opportunities at locations beyond Sloane Avenue, but it was their operations at the old McDonald’s in Lakewood that caught the public eye.
Approaching the old McDonald’s, there’s no question that you’ve come to a former fast food restaurant. There are vestiges of the old drive-thru, and the building’s silhouette is unmistakable. But, taking a deep inhale, you’re greeted not with that distinctive french fry smell, rather with an aroma of fresh-baked cookies, pot pies, and other scratch cooking made from well-sourced ingredients and embracing the same ethos as the Nature’s Bin.
This former fast food den is now Cornucopia’s Vocational Training Center (VTC) and commissary kitchen. Led by Chef Nancy Ferriss, and staffed with a mix of traditional employees and Cornucopia clients, it’s unlike most typical commercial kitchens.
Chef Nancy and Kevin, a recent graduate of the training program, welcomed us when we entered VTC. Chef Nancy, who only recently came on board, brings with her 36 years of food experience. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, worked in production, hotel and restaurant kitchens in Germany and Switzerland, owned a fish store in Napa Valley, and did research and development for Vitamix.
Kevin took a less traditional route to the VTC. He recently moved to Cleveland from Puerto Rico, and he was introduced to Cornucopia while taking English as a Second Language classes at El Barrio Workforce Development Center. Prior to training at the VTC, his culinary experience came from cooking rice, bacalao, escabeche, and plantains with his grandmother in Puerto Rico. After graduating from the VTC’s training program, Kevin’s competence and attitude earned him a staff position in the kitchen.
The commissary kitchen serves two equally important purposes, each beneficial to the other. First, it’s a real production kitchen, preparing food to exacting standards for Nature’s Bin and catering clients. Second, it provides job training for people who might otherwise be left out of the workforce. People like Kevin, ranging in age from teens to 50s, get to work with Chef Nancy and her staff, as well as their counselors, and learn how to cook in a professional kitchen. When they graduate from the program, they’ll leave with real experience and a ServSafe certificate, both keys to obtaining employment in the food service world.
We caught up with another one of Cornucopia’s graduates, Patricia, in downtown Cleveland’s Key Tower. For nearly a year, Patricia has been working the flatbread, quesadilla, and burrito station at the Sodexo catering facility on the 10th floor. Whereas the VTC kitchen exudes the calm and patience of a teaching kitchen, the sense of urgency at Key Tower was palpable, and it would be fair to question whether the nurturing environment at the VTC really equips its trainees for the intensity of a bustling service environment.
But while Patricia acknowledged that the pace was accelerated at Key Tower, she was also quick to point out that the things she learned at the VTC, like food safety and knife skills, prepared her well. Her supervisor, executive chef Jeffery Urban, noted that coming in with the ServSafe certificate and the fundamentals down, ensured a smooth transition for everyone. Because of her training at the VTC and her hard work at Key Tower, Patricia has a job she loves.
Cornucopia’s executive director, Nancy Peppler, wanted us to understand that her organization, along with Nature’s Bin and the VTC, is first and foremost a social enterprise. Its goal is to provide people with real work experience and assistance in turning that experience into gainful employment.
By supporting Nature’s Bin, patrons aren’t just shopping at a neighborhood grocery store or utilizing a locally owned catering facility. Shopping with Nature’s Bin means supporting a business with a mission of helping people who want to find fulfilling jobs.
Supporting the mission by enjoying quality and wholesome foods is just a delicious bonus.
Nature’s Bin, 18120 Sloane Avenue in Lakewood, Sun 9am–7pm, Mon–Sat 9am–9pm, 216.521.4600, Cornucopia-Inc.org.