Operating a social enterprise presents its own unique challenges. Yet, at Cornucopia Inc., a nonprofit that dares to make a profit while simultaneously helping those with disabilities find meaningful careers and sustainable futures, we’ve taken a big step this year to expand our mission by renovating a vacant McDonald’s.
Cornucopia operates Nature’s Bin, a natural and organic food store in Lakewood. Our mission is to help people with disabilities develop their skills, confidence and workplace potential. Nature’s Bin is considered a social enterprise, meaning its business is operated by a nonprofit to generate revenue. The revenue is then used to support the mission of our organization.
Challenging the status quo
The social enterprise concept was unheard of nearly four decades ago when we opened our first retail business.
We started with a small storefront selling fresh produce staffed by community volunteers and people with severe disabilities. Having people with disabilities working in our business was a bold step, and it challenged the status quo.
Within the walls of our store and in our six other community-based businesses people with a wide range of disabilities including developmental disabilities, autism, mental illness, and visual, speech and hearing issues, participate in vocational training. This training teaches them skills that will ultimately contribute to their success in today’s job market and enable them to enjoy a higher quality of life.
But the road to this success has required a lot of work. Since 1975, we have partnered with county and state agencies to provide vocational services to more than 3,000 individuals with disabilities. Building relationships with these agencies has been a vital part of sustaining our business.
Due to the success of Nature’s Bin, we’ve been able to give more focus on our strategic goals and find opportunities to expand our social enterprise efforts. Our executive team had been seeking an opportunity to enlarge our vocational training program with more food preparation training options. We also sought to increase Nature’s Bin’s retail food service operations, which includes a catering business.
With the help of community and corporate foundations and individual donors, we purchased and renovated a closed McDonald’s that was located only 300 feet from Nature’s Bin. The property now provides a state-of-the art commissary for Nature’s Bin and Nature’s Bin Catering.
The center’s main objective is to increase our ability to provide vocational assessment and job training for people with disabilities so they can learn food preparation skills and graduate with solid work experience and abilities.
Nature’s Bin has continued to be an anchor in the Lakewood area, and it’s what keeps Cornucopia up and running. Over the past decade, our market’s retail sales contributed to more than 70 percent of the total revenue raised by our organization. Annual sales over the past six years have more than doubled, reaching approximately $6.3 million in 2012.
Because of our nonprofit mission and the success of our retail operation, Cornucopia is often cited as a groundbreaking social enterprise. As such, we have provided consultation to other nonprofits seeking to develop their own version of a social enterprise. Nonprofit and philanthropic communities are embracing the social enterprise model as a way to move toward self-sufficiency. ●
Scott Duennes is executive director of Cornucopia Inc. He was an EY Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist in 2013. He can be reached at (216) 521-4600 or at [email protected]