By Sue Botos
When Scott Duennes, executive director of Lakewood’s Nature’s Bin and Cornucopia, decided he was in the mood for McDonald’s, he didn’t just go for a Big Mac – he went for the whole building.
After a $1.8 million capital campaign and a lot of elbow grease, the former Sloane Avenue McDonald’s in Lakewood has been transformed into Cornucopia’s new vocational training center (VTC). The facility includes offices and a state-of-the-art commissary kitchen in which trainees with disabilities work alongside staff members to prepare ready-to-eat foods for Nature’s Bin and its catering service, while learning job skills.
Aside from Nature’s Bin, Cornucopia offers vocational training for people with various physical and mental disabilities at six other sites throughout Northeast Ohio, such as T.J.Maxx stores in Woodmere and Brooklyn and Cleveland’s Eliza Jennings Center.
Begun in a 500-square-foot store on Madison Avenue in 1975, Nature’s Bin, then known simply as The Bin, was one of the first businesses offering work opportunities to people with special needs, as well as healthy, organic foods. “We were ahead of the curve. At that time, most people with disabilities were institutionalized,” Duennes stated.
Duennes, who began with The Bin as a retail manager in 1986, said the store moved to its Sloane Avenue location, on the opposite side of a small shopping strip from the new VTC, in 1990. But soon, that facility became “submarine tight,” according to Duennes, who added that only one trainee at a time could work in the kitchen, and offices were tucked into every available corner.
“Two years ago we searched for a site to expand the building’s commissary, given the amount of business we were doing. We then heard a rumor that McDonald’s (on Sloane) was closing to relocate to Detroit Avenue,” Duennes recalled during a recent tour of the VTC. (Duennes pointed out that anyone referring to the facility as “the old McDonald’s” had to contribute change to a “fine” jar. He did give a break to a visitor.)
But after rumor became reality and Cornucopia expressed its interest in the McDonald’s building, there was more to be done than just shuttering the drive-thru window.
“The building was corporately owned by McDonald’s, so we put feelers out to the city, then contacted McDonald’s. They seldom sell their property and usually tear down their buildings. They’re pretty finicky about protecting their brand and image,” Duennes said.
“The city really came to bat for us, and I’d like to think that the fact that this is a nonprofit training center had an impact,” he added. In addition, Duennes said Cornucopia had to agree to several restrictions, including no sales of food on the property.
After the “de-arching” or removal of all iconic McDonald’s signage, the work began, including bringing the over-40-year-old structure up to current code. In the commercial kitchen, which is about 60 percent larger than at the old facility, the fast-food restaurant floor and walk-in freezer were scrubbed and salvaged. Chef Tana Fry, a native of Sweden, enjoyed her new surroundings as she prepped chicken salad. “There is so much more room, it gives us more opportunity to try different things,” she said. There is also room for six trainee workstations.
Duennes further explained that the renovation was paid for totally by grants and donations. For example, the Rocky River Lowe’s donated plants, soil, mulch, tools and manpower for landscaping and the planting of a vegetable garden through Lowe’s Heroes Program. Sherwin-Williams provided paint and stain.
Duennes added that celebrity chef and Magnificat High School graduate Anne Thornton consulted on the culinary training program. She will also be putting Cornucopia and Nature’s Bin in the national spotlight with an appearance on the new, nationally syndicated Queen Latifah talk show.
Although the VTC has its own look and identity, and the Sloane McDonald’s has been closed for over a year, it still may be awhile before folks learn to get their French fry fix elsewhere. “We turned the pay window into a delivery door, and closed up the take-out window, and we still had people pulling in as of yesterday puzzling about how to order,” he stated.