Grabbing a latte at the Lil E Coffee Cafe kiosk in The Ampersand building downtown feels much like getting your morning caffeine fix anywhere else in the city. The keen counter staff will pass your order on to a skilled barista who will hand you a steaming hot cup within a matter of minutes. The only difference is the service might feel a bit friendlier than at other urban coffee houses. There are no stereotypically grouchy baristas at Lil E — everyone behind the counter is genuinely proud to be part of the team.
The enthusiasm of Lil E’s staff isn’t just a result of it being a great place to work. Founded by businessman Paul Constance in 2022, Lil E is a non-profit, charitable organization designed to provide people with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities with career opportunities. The concept was inspired by Constance’s daughter, Ella (the “E” in Lil E), who has Down’s syndrome. Constance wanted to give other people the chance to show off their strengths and bring joy to their local communities, too.
“It’s about creating a platform and developing careers,” he says. “A lot of these individuals have never had a job before coming here.”
Lil E is indeed a working coffee shop, ready and willing to serve paying customers. It sources its beans from Rosso Coffee (Rosso co-founder Cole Torode is on the Lil E board of directors) and serves all your typical espresso-based drinks, as well as smoothies and hot chocolate. There are also snacks in the form of energy balls, yogurt parfaits and a few baked goods.
The staff at Lil E greet customers, run the till, make coffee, clean up and work in the kitchen. No one is expected to stay at the café permanently — once they build experience and skills, the staff are connected with other employers to progress their careers. This process is intended to be completed within a year and comes with a certification.
Constance’s goal is to build 10,000 careers for Lil E “graduates,” not only through the Calgary café, but also by expanding the concept to other markets. Currently, Lil E employs 10 staff members in Calgary and 15 in the Toronto location that opened last summer.
While selling coffee is what Lil E does day-to-day, Constance says customers know that the real drive behind the shop is creating social change.
“We believe everyone has greatness, but someone has to give them the opportunity,” he says. “Once they’re given an opportunity you see them blossom. Our customers feel like they’re part of that journey, too.”