There’s not much in food that Maeve Monaghan enjoys more than a freshly made pizza from the small café in Crawfordsburn, near Bangor, that she runs as part of her role with NOW Group in training people with learning difficulties and autism to develop skills for worthwhile careers in catering and food preparation.
A pizza oven is located within the coffee shop and small pottery in the quaint village that’s staffed by the group, a hugely successful social enterprise which also runs the Loaf Catering and Bakery restaurant and catering operation at its headquarters on Belfast’s Grosvenor Road and another, smaller Loaf Café at The Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh, a major tourism venue that’s busy recovering its business postlockdown. Loaf Catering and Bakery in a Food NI member company.
Maeve continues: “We’ve opened Loaf Pottery in Crawfordsburn and it’s going really well. It’s a novel venture, a tiny building in the picturesque village with a pottery, coffee shop and pizza oven in the back garden. We’re keen to promote the venue as a great day out – pizza, pottery and BYO. Local volunteers tend our vegetable garden and the produce is used in the coffee shop. We are keen to encourage more people to think about buying local and social.
“Customers can enjoy a pizza in the shop or take one away to enjoy at home.
“I love to call in at the café for a tasty pizza that’s made on the spot and to chat to staff there and in the pottery. I find it a great way to relax and recharge my batteries after a busy day at the office in Belfast.
“In addition to the catering and baking skills in the café and pizza area, the pottery enables people with learning difficulties and autism to gain different expertise in crafting pots. We are also keen to promote entrepreneurship among those with learning difficulties,” she says.
Loaf Cafe in the Folk Park at Omagh opened last week after the lockdown with a small team of people learning skills that could also lead to long-term employment. “It’s early days there but we are keen to let people know that it’s a good day out too for those going to the popular museum,” she adds.
Loaf Café in Belfast is also benefiting from the Government’sEat Out to Help Out initiative for the crucially important hospitality sector. “Business doubled each day last week in the café in Belfast, our flagship and oldest catering centre. The Eat Out scheme has been phenomenal for us,” says Maeve, a winner of the Women in Business NI Award for Outstanding Management and Leadership.
The innovative and inspirational Now Group is currently helping around 100 people with disabilities and autism with opportunities to develop worthwhile training and long-term employment in food preparation, production and catering services at its base on the Grosvenor Road in Belfast – opposite the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital – as well as at the Crawfordsburn and Omagh locations.
The Loaf Café and Bakery was opened in June 2015 after the NOW Group transformed the derelict buildingwhich was previously known as the Oak Bar. It’s since become a local landmark for families and individuals seeking a broad range of quality and delicious food.Some 700 people have gained key skills since then.
“Our most famous product is the handmade, award-winning sausage roll,” Maeve continues. “We call them ‘Rolls with Soul’ because the profits go back to supportour participants with disabilities who work in our cafésand other parts of the catering business. I am a bit biased but it’s a really delicious product, just as tasty as the pizzas baked freshly in Crawfordsburn.
“We introduced this special one-foot long sausage roll to launch our online business and we are already getting great feedback from customers about its quality and outstanding taste.
“We are passionate about supporting people with learning difficulties and autism into jobs with a future,” she adds.
The group, she continues, is steadily rebuilding its catering business since the lockdown was lifted. It had launched takeaway and home delivery services during the lockdown for regular customers and to keep the cash flowing.
“And to ensure we kept our kitchen operational and staff fully employed, we launched a family menu that was available for collection and delivery and could be ordered over the phone or on line,” adds Maeve.
NOW Group is widely respected for its community support work and won the title of Social Enterprise of the Year 2017 at the Belfast Business Awards hosted by Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. Some 700 people have already benefited from its dedicated work in skills and career development. It does this by offering a range of services to clients including a dedicated employment team, training, a transition services for young people moving from school or college into work and a volunteering programme.