It’s a Friday afternoon around lunchtime, and there’s a line at the counter at Brother André’s Cafe. Staff supervisor/occupational therapist Bridgette Loiselle is holding down the fort, so the rest of the staff can assist at Friday Mass upstairs at the Church of the Epiphany. Despite the rush, she’s smiling as she takes orders for lattes, wraps and cookies.
“We get a lot of support,” she says.
As she speaks, a few groups of Duquesne University students set up laptops at the round banquet tables. Moms with toddlers chat together on a nearby couch. A half-built Christmas tree stands nearby; volunteers unpack ornaments and unfurl tinsel.
Employee Shay Moffatt, just back from Mass, makes a beeline over to one of the Duquesne tables, arms thrown wide for hugs.
Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the crew at Brother André’s serves coffee both plain and fancy, along with homemade cookies, local bagels and lunch items.
Almost all of the employees have intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Aides and interns from nearby colleges are onsite as well, as are a few moms and dads. But Moffatt and her colleagues do most of the work.
Brother André’s Cafe is the brainchild of Mike and Terri Fitzgerald, parents of Patrick, 26, who is on the autism spectrum. After finishing high school in 2018, Patrick earned a food service certificate from the Community College of Allegheny County, but finding work was a challenge.
“Businesses just thought it would be too much trouble to hire him,” says his dad.
Patrick loves to bake: “He was a legend” in the neighborhood for his cookies, his dad says.
Mike and Terri considered starting an online shop for Patrick’s cookies, but they knew he wasn’t the work-from-home type.
“So I put together an idea” for a cafe that could employ adults with disabilities, Mike recalls.
Terri and Patrick knew Rev. Chris Donley from their volunteer work at the Red Door, handing out meals to people in need Downtown. Father Chris is the pastor at Divine Mercy Parish, overseeing both the Church of the Epiphany and St. Mary of Mercy Church, home of the Red Door.
He remembered Patrick’s hard work as a volunteer and agreed to convert the Church of the Epiphany basement into Brother André’s Cafe. It’s named after St. André Bessette (1845-1937), a French Canadian brother who ministered to hundreds in Montreal, despite lifelong physical frailty.
A planned March 2020 opening was scuttled by Covid, though they had some success selling cookies and coffee beans online, Mike says. Brother André’s opened for in-person patrons in October 2021. (Cafe merch, including baby onesies, T-shirts and golf balls, is available online and at the cafe.)
Though its location up the street from PPG Paints Arena is more Uptown than Downtown, Brother André’s gets some foot traffic, plus there’s free parking in the church lot.
Joe Polk, an Allegheny County employee, first visited in October and has been back several times since.
“Everybody is incredibly friendly and so patient and kind,” Polk says. “They have an amazing breakfast sandwich. And the coffee is very good.”
Most of the staff work a couple of days a week and are paid above minimum wage, more than many workers with disabilities receive. And unlike employees at most jobs, staff members come in even when they don’t have to.
“Shay wakes up every day and says ‘Do I go to work today?’,” says Shay’s mom, Sandee Moffatt. “If she’s working the register, she’ll try to upsell the customers, asking if they want a cookie too.”
Patrick can’t wait to come to work, either, says his dad Mike. “It gives him a good sense of purpose. It’s like a home for him.”
Staff and supporters are looking forward to the Christmas Ball at the cafe on Dec. 11. (Formal dress is requested, and Shay plans to have her makeup done.)
Mike says they want to expand their outreach efforts in the new year and include more severely disabled people, who may not be able to work behind the counter but can serve as ambassadors for Brother Andre’s.
“We’ve overlooked these groups for so long,” he says.
As the Friday workday starts to wind down, Shay and her colleagues, Danny Shipe and Nick Wiese, get their picture taken with the Christmas tree, now built and sparkling.
Danny had been the barista for a while that day; when asked for drink recommendations, he suggests the seasonal Rowdy Reindeer (coffee with peppermint) or his favorite, the Black and Gold Mocha.
“It’s got caramel in it,” he notes.
Brother André’s Cafe is located at 164 Washington Place and is open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.