'Imagination will take you everywhere'
East London is renowned for having the wackiest concept cafés, from cats to cereal and even pay-as-you-go. Now there has been a boom in cafés with a conscience – social enterprises that give back to the community.
Nicole Danielle Page is one of those ethically-minded entrepreneurs hoping to set up shop in Hackney.
After meeting a 12-year-old boy in an Indian orphanage whose story “struck a chord”, Page, from Syracuse, New York, became aware of the difficulties young people face when leaving foster care – not just in India but across the world.
“It really made me stop and consider what’s happening in my country, what’s happening with the kids that are in foster care in the States and now that I’m over here it’s actually the same thing,” says Page.
Now Page, 31, and her business partner, Whitney Papa, 28, from Austin, Texas, are planning to base their start-up bakery and café, Wanderlost, in Hackney. The café will employ young adults who have left foster care.
Approximately 10,000 young adults leave foster care each year in the UK.
Page says: “In London there’s actually a really high population of care leavers, so it’s made sense to do it here, because it’s a very big issue.” The pair believe that care leavers are vulnerable and more likely to face homelessness, unemployment and difficulties accessing further education.
Their goal is to create a mentorship-led employability training programme for the care leavers. They want to give them the opportunity to learn how to bake, or be front-of-house, as well as managing staff and learning how to run a business. All of which will help the care leavers to improve their future prospects and – crucially – create a support network for them.
So far both Page and Papa have been juggling numerous jobs in order to fund their blossoming venture, as well as baking pies for cafés and private orders under the guise of the deliciously named ‘Oh Gee Pie!’, which they hope Wanderlost will become an outlet for.
Their determination has not gone unnoticed, in March 2016, they won the London Met Accelerator Big Idea 2016 Competition. Papa says: “Just to have the validation made us realise that this was an idea that people were behind.” It propelled them forward and they now hope to buy a proper kitchen space in Hackney by the autumn.
Papa describes the borough as being “a hub of creativity and support”, with “a lot of young people and young entrepreneurs who are starting up”. Page says: “We want to be in an area that’s going to be accessible to these young people who we want to work with – anything that’s going to pull them away from going down a bad path.”
Another social enterprise café which helps local people in the right direction, is the Trew Era Cafe in Hoxton. Founded in March 2015 by the comedian, Russell Brand, it’s located on the New Era housing estate and currently employs six people who have battled drug or alcohol addiction in the past.
The Manager, Rose Chorlton, 29, explains: “The main aim is to promote and encourage rehabilitation for employment. Everyone apart from myself that we employ here are undergoing abstinence recovery.”
By giving them the London living wage, as well as peer support, Chorlton hopes to motivate people to get back into the workplace. She says: “Having everyone in a similar situation encourages them and instils them with confidence and self-worth.”
Similarly, The Canvas Café in Shoreditch, exudes a warm and friendly atmosphere – and rightly so as it holds the title of London’s first Happy Café – certified by the charity, Action for Happiness, last year.
The founder, Ruth Rogers, says: “I like to say we are your happy place – from everything to the welcome you get to the care the people take with the food that we make and the coffee, but also the events that we run, we are just all about improving your happiness and self-esteem.”
The café has a packed schedule; mindfulness workshops, free yoga, comedy nights (Happy Hour) and talks, such as The Survivors’ Collective, a monthly open forum for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Rogers, 35, said she got the idea for the café after going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with her white living room sofa and asked passers-by to write one sentence about their body on it as part of a “PR gimmick” for her charity, Body Gossip which promotes mental and physical health.
She wanted to use the sofa as a tool to get the public to share stories about their body. “I realised that there’s something really interesting about inviting people to write on an unusual canvas and so a few years later I thought; wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a venue that people could write on?”
The Canvas Café was born in 2014. The walls of the café are filled with scribbles from visitors, creating a living piece of art that gradually spreads upwards, which Rogers says creates a sense of “belonging and ownership”. Her plan once they start making a profit is to fund Body Gossip’s education programme in schools, as well as offer more free space to organisations with a similar ethos.
Rogers says: “We push community here and in a lonely place like London, that’s important.”
What is a social enterprise and why are they booming? Dominic Ellison, 37, Chief Executive of Hackney Co-operative Developments explains…
“Social enterprises are businesses which work to achieve social aims which consider the impact they have on all of their stakeholders, whether that’s the communities that own them, the people who work for them or the customers they serve.
There are over 70,000 social enterprises in the UK contributing over £55 billion to our economy and employing over 2 million people.”
How many social enterprises are there in Hackney?
“We have got the figure of 248 for now, although we expect there are quite a few more. There’s certainly been a huge boom in this sector. I think that’s due partly to consumer demand for ethical purchasing but also in the wake of the financial crisis people have really started to question why they work, and are seeking to have meaningful employment.
Social enterprises are a really good vehicle for creating business which support and enhance a local area. 38% of social enterprises operate within the top 20% of the most deprived areas.”
Why are they so popular within the borough?
“People who live in Hackney really identify with the borough, and the borough is a big part of their identity, so I think people are very keen to support a business which they think is enhancing the area which they live in.
I think that Hackney has always lead in terms of ethical consumers. It has also always been an entrepreneurial borough as well and I think that is a result of the large amount of immigration we’ve always had in Hackney and how welcoming Hackney has always been to migrants from foreign countries.”
Hackney Co-operative Developments is a local community development agency which supports social enterprises through initiatives like their ‘Pioneering Social Enterprise in Hackney’, which aims to grow the socially owned share of the local economy.
This article was originally written for the Hackney Gazette.