Riverfront café fosters confidence, cooperation and skill building for employees with disabilities


Asim King hopped off the 32 bus, beat the red light crossing Kelly Drive and fast-walked to the Cosmic Café at 1 Boathouse Row.

“Got to be on time,” King said at the café, a bright place that brims with enticing aromas. Like 20 of the café’s 30 employees, King has a developmental disability.

Disabled employees usually begin as dishwashers; then owner and chef Peg Botto identifies their strengths and gives them new tasks. King, who started out cleaning two years ago, now makes bottled drinks and espresso and “does anything related to customer service,” he says.

Employees’ capabilities determine their schedules.

“I have people who work full-time and others work just two hours a week because that’s what they can do,” Botto says. “I couldn’t run the café without some of them.” She explained that some employees have job counselors who help them succeed, but Botto and other staffers do 90% of the training.

Besides helping employees learn job skills, Botto encourages them to grow. Amelia Wells, who has special needs, has cleaned restrooms at the café for three years.

The café is not like a traditional restaurant. We all work together to get everything done. I’d like to be an assistant manager one day.”

— Tyheed Roane, Cosmic Café

“I’d like to go to school, and I’d like to work in daycare,” says Wells, who works five days a week.

Tyheed Roane, who has autism and anxiety, has stretched his horizons during his seven-plus years at the café. From washing dishes, he’s progressed to making fresh beverages and lattes, breakfast and lunch prep, handling the cash register, serving food and more.

“The café is not like a traditional restaurant,” Roane says. “We all work together to get everything done. I’d like to be an assistant manager one day.”

Cosmic café is situated on the iconic Boathouse Row. Photo by Rachel Warriner.

Besides jobs, Botto finds other ways to support employees.

“She’s given baby showers and paid for haircuts,” says Lois Tate, an employment specialist with People Employing People (PEP), one of the agencies that refers potential employees to Botto. “She’s also taken employees on vacation with her because some of them had never seen the ocean.”

Work can mean not only money to achieve goals like having an apartment, but development in other respects. Tate finds that besides mastering food service tasks, King is more confident and outgoing. In addition to PEP, Horizon House and SPIN, organizations that support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, also send job seekers to Botto.

The café’s staff reflects one of Botto’s passions. A Qualified Intellectual Disability Professional (QIDP) with a degree in human services administration, Botto used to manage group homes for people with developmental challenges in Philadelphia, her hometown, and later in Florida. But she found that paperwork stole time from caring for residents.

Botto also loves to cook. After she and her husband, Jerome, returned to Philly she earned a chef’s certificate from the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in 1990. She worked for several corporations before the Bottos began offering healthy food alternatives at local street festivals. “Everything else was fried!” she says.In 2000, in addition to the festivals, Botto and two developmentally disabled employees started selling organic dishes three days a week at the Chestnut Hill Farmers’ Market. Then an unusual opportunity came along during the Fishtown Shad Festival in 2008. The Bottos learned of the opening at their current location, Lloyd Hall, a site managed by Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. They landed the café contract there in 2009.

“It was a risk,” Botto says. The previous concessionaire had sold hot dogs and soda. After a bumpy first year, the café’s from-scratch menu caught on. Runners, rowers, cyclists and tourists began dropping in for dishes like the breakfast burrito — three cage-free scrambled eggs, potatoes, peppers, onions, cheddar cheese and black bean salsa wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla.

Chef Dorell Parker is one of the 20 employees with disabilities at Cosmic Café. Photo by Rachael Warriner.

“I like the egg salad sandwich,” says Kieran, a regular who walks to the café from Brewerytown. “It tastes so fresh. I buy it every day.” The Ciderhouse on the café’s patio — serving cider, beer, wine and spirits — is popular, too.

Botto runs a low-waste business.

“We donate extra food to St. John’s Hospice” says bookkeeper Darlene Martin. “We use real plates and utensils so there’s no waste there. We also compost and pay to have our cardboard recycled.”

For efficiency, café hours “follow the sun,” with longer workdays in spring and summer and shorter ones in winter.

“I save in summer so I can pay my employees in winter,” says Botto, who also donates 10% of her profits to Parks & Recreation.

In the last decade-plus, Botto has built a thriving business that gives back; recently, she’s been getting more recognition for her work. 6 ABC profiled her in June. In September, she received an award from Philadelphia Family, an organization that connects parents with local resources. Horizon House also honored her at its recent Brighter Future Awards ceremony.

At 65, Botto would like to shift gears. In 2018, she launched the Cosmic Foundation to help special needs employees advance into other companies. She envisions “a health-conscious establishment with upstairs apartments” that not only teaches marketable knowhow but life skills.

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