It only takes a matter of moments upon walking into Third Space Cafe on Queen Street in Niagara Falls to know that this space is offers something important, loving, and powerful. At first glance you might notice the bright colours or the different local art on the walls, the homemade menu items or the speciality coffee. While all of these ingredients build the recipe for a great cafe, take two more steps and notice the Scrabble tiles or the buzz of discussions between customers and staff. In this moment, the impact of Third Space Cafe becomes increasingly clear – this isn’t just another hipster spot to grab coffee on the go, nor is meant to feed the mass tourism so often characterized in Niagara Falls. This is a space of community; a space invested in its the support and growth and it’s neighbourhood; a space built to facilitate connection and creativity. This cafe embodies what American author Ray Oldenburg describes as a third space, “an open mixing place for the general public but we are strongly committed to bringing people to gather who may not normally spend time together in the hope that they will become friends seeking greater relationships with each other and the community”
Sitting down with Charissa Sanche, the Executive Director of Third Space Cafe, one year after opening, shared the standing pillars and long-term development vision for this not-for-profit social enterprise. Guided by three core principles of “creating a safe space, access to the experience and the community building, and employment”, this cafe offers a wide range of avenues to access its community and environment.
Built by these principles, Sanche highlighted how “from the beginning, we had a tone set by our staff that made it welcome for anyone to be vulnerable in the space, speak honestly about their situation, their struggles, and feel like this is a safe space for them”. For many this meant Third Space has offers a space of support, validation, and refuge for folks who maybe their current situation. Sanche noted that this commitment to intentionally develop space where people can be themselves and share their realities is showcased in that “the relationships that have grown in the last year are significant and can be seen in how many people are on a first name basis on any given day”
Another core element of fostering safe space is through the local events being increasingly hosted through the space. Partnering with LGBTQ+ in the City for regular events, hosting past events such as the Trans Meet and Greet and a 90s Dance Party. Additionally, Sanche explained that with increasing awareness of their space, more and more groups have become connected to space. Sanche explained that through the visual arts showcased throughout the cafe and with the development of the Fourth Corner, the community space in the back of the cafe, “Our local artists recognize this spaces as a home for them since we display all local artists work… Musicians have the opportunity to play at open mic night or have live shows here”. In addition to the regular open mics, community meetings, and upcoming gallery showcase of Functional Art, which showcases four local artists repurposing furniture for both art and utility between June and September.
Core to the necessity of being a welcoming and inclusive environment, Sanche specifically pointed to the need for “the opportunity to participate in a specialty cafe environment for anyone in the community, including those who don’t have the means to do so”. One means of creating a safer space is routed in the building a culture of giving manifested through the Suspended Coffee movement. Sanche explains this process uses Scrabble tiles as currency and “where tourists, or professionals, or local compassionate people pay it forward by buying Suspended Coffees for anyone to redeem for food or drink. That is the bridge that allows anyone to participate in this space including the customers who would be seen as “unfavourable” in other spaces, in typical businesses”.
Starting with the fundamental philosophy of a social enterprise, Sanche highlighted how they use the exchange of “the buying and selling of goods, to generate revenue but the social impact remains a core priority. Sanche explained that “any growth or profit above just covering our general expenses will go into making employment more secure for our employees”. In looking towards the longterm, Sanche noted how “I see the next five years being getting to the point where all of our employees have a living wage, appropriate number of ours for their situation and health and dental benefits”.
In developing employment opportunities for marginalized populations in Niagara Falls, early on Third Space parted with the Niagara Training & Employment Agency (NTEC) to offer employment for people with disabilities. In developing these position, it requires an additional step as the employer to ensure that opportunities are tailored to ensure working remains accessible, including elements like “shorter hours, accommodations for work, supported employment”. Sanche went more into detail on the necessity of creating space that are purposefully built “is the piece that shows people that this is a place for anyone. They are paying the same wage for people with disabilities to work here who could be considered of “lesser labour value”, but that it’s a place for them to learn, and work, and engage, and participate in community just as it is for professionals who work on Queen Street”.
Moving forward, Sanche explained that she’d “like to see more residents of Niagara Falls outside of the Queen Street neighbourhood and residents of the Niagara Region to recognize this as a destination because of the opportunity to give Suspended Coffees. Because of homemade fresh food and also a place where events and gatherings can happen of all kinds”.
With all of the components building within Third Space the outcome has created a community investment unlike many others. With an endless amount of volunteers hours poured into the space to ensure that this continues to offer continued engagement. Sanche shared that in addition to supporting as a customer, that folks can take an increasingly active role.
“We have a general membership and anyone is eligible to join that and the main perk of joining the organization other than having a voice into the strategic future of the social enterprise, is that they can use this space for free”, making this an essential space “where people can decompress, connect with others, learn, and build relationships”.