Cafe Society serves up jobs

Two self-financing cafés in London are raising horizons for people with learning disabilities, reports Andrew Mickel

Two self-financing cafés in London are raising horizons for people with learning disabilities, reports Andrew Mickel

(Picture: George Tobin, right, and Steven Rossetti are in paid employment for the first time thanks to the Unity Café. Credit: Tom Parkes)

Project details

Project name: Unity Café at Tooley Street, from the Camden Society.

Location: Southwark Council buildings, London.

Aim: To provide non-subsidised, paid employment for people with learning disabilities, to give them skills to build careers and independence.

Funding: Self-funding business, with support from the Camden Society and three-year contract to provide café services to the building.

Service users: Nine people with learning disabilities, employed as apprentices.

Staff: Five professional staff – a café manager, head chef, and three catering staff.

Contact: 020 7485 8177,

It’s become increasingly common to find people with learning disabilities working alongside other staff in supermarkets and cafés, but often the work is unpaid or subsidised.

The Camden Society has run several London cafés since the mid-1980s that provide such work experience, but two cafés it has recently opened are self-financing social enterprises, providing paid employment for people with learning disabilities.

The first was Unity Café, a staff café in Southwark Council’s building behind London City Hall, which opened on 1 June.

The move was part of a commercial procurement exercise, says Denise Largin, chief executive of the Camden Society: “We were up against contract caterers. Southwark really wanted to recognise and develop social enterprises, so that worked in our favour. But we had to compete on the same basis as everyone else in terms of food, quality and price,” she says.

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The idea for a café grew out of a separate contract that the Camden Society has held since 2008 to provide day services for 200 people with learning disabilities in Southwark. Much of that work is focused on developing service users’ employability. The charity was tipped off by someone in the council’s health and social care team about the café tender, and a bid was put in for it.

The contract for the café is entirely independent from the day services contract, although many of the apprentices have moved from using day services to work in the café. That has also freed up day service places for others.

It’s been a fast start for the organisation: the apprentices, who were chosen from an open application process, have been employed since May for training, before the café opened in June. A second café on the same model has since opened in a community centre in Islington.

The fast start has helped to bring many of the apprentices out of their shells, says Largin: “There were certainly one or two people who really couldn’t talk to other people very easily at all. Now they’re laughing and joking in the kitchen,” she says.

“One is from the West Indies and hasn’t been back since she was a small child; now she’s saving up to go back and see her family. Others are talking about saving up for Christmas presents.”

Chris Dorey, a commissioner for the council’s learning disability services, adds: “The obvious thing you can see is they’re working hard, feel valued, and feel part of things. They’re getting their wage like everybody else. For a lot of them, that’s been a dream for a long time.”

The service is serving about one-third of the 1,500 workers in the building. Shelley Williams, a contract manager for the council’s corporate procurement team, which holds the café contract with the charity, says it provides a less corporate service than a private company. “I’d say Camden Society is particularly friendly, and it’s a great community,” she says. “They work well together and they’re always happy to see you; they can’t do enough for you.”

While the business is self-funding, the charity has had to provide support to get it off the ground, including job coaches to help the apprentices become used to their jobs. However, 10 weeks after opening, most apprentices no longer require coaching and deal directly with the customers. There are a couple of signs up in the café explaining that it is staffed by people with learning disabilities, but, Williams says, “Customers are aware of it, but we don’t rub people’s noses in it.” There clearly wasn’t anything to worry about: Largin can’t point to any bad reactions from customers, while Dorey says there is a sense of pride among social services staff about the project’s success.

The ultimate ambition is for apprentices to take their training elsewhere by gaining all-important NVQs – the apprenticeships last a year, although there is the possibility for them to stay on in post.

For the project, the next ambition is to provide hospitality services for the council’s buildings, while the charity is also keeping an eye on other councils for similar opportunities.

But perhaps most importantly, the café is bringing in customers and proving to be a success by the most crucial measure of any café. “The food’s lovely,” says Williams. “The things they can do in this kitchen never cease to amaze me.”

Case study

George Tobin, 20, and Steven Rossetti, 22, have an enviable array of work experience between them, including stints at cafés in Brixton, Morrison’s and the Tate Modern, but neither had regular paid employment before starting at the Unity Café.

However, since May, the apprentices have gained confidence in their own skills and in working with other people. “I like working with people,” says George. “It’s nice working here.”

They both completed short training courses through the Camden Society, in fields such as food hygiene, health and safety and customer care, as part of the organisation’s contract for providing day services with Southwark Council.

However, the rest of their training has been completed on the job, and while they did have support workers with them for the first couple of weeks to help them settle into the work and get accustomed to dealing with customers, they now work without additional support.

When we arrive, Steven is chopping up dill for the day’s salmon pie, while George is washing cooking trays. The café gives apprentices three-month rotations on different stations, allowing them to fully understand each job and get to grips with the catering industry. George names cleaning up tables as the key skill he’s learned so far, while Steven flags making muffins.

Amy McParland, the Camden Society’s social enterprise manager, says the pace of change in the first 10 weeks has been fast: “When Steven first started in the kitchen with the head chef, [the chef] was constantly having to look over his shoulder and bring forward health and safety issues, whereas now Steven can come in and bake cakes by himself independently.”

Steven adds: “I know that the Tate Modern was bigger and had more staff, but you get more support working in a smaller place.”

The job pays the London living wage (£7.85 an hour), which has meant Steven has been able to buy a season ticket to watch Millwall.

In the coming weeks they will both work front of the house, while the café’s coffee supplier will be visiting to train them in making coffee.

“I want to try a bit of everything,” says Steven.

‘You get more support working in smaller places’

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