Stevie (S): All my mates live in town, so I used to come here quite a lot, and I remember seeing this place and that I saw umbrellas on the ceiling. I saw that, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to start hanging out there when it opens.’
Presenter Neil (PN): Today we’re in Scunthorpe, in Café INDIEpendent. You can’t miss it; it’s impressive. Housed in an old department store, its four glass-fronted storeys stare down the high street. The aesthetic is modern industrial with a nod to the challenges of the northern climate. Fifty-odd brightly coloured umbrellas hanging from the ground floor café ceiling.
Tom Powell (TP): It’s a really cool thing when people come in; they always want to talk about the umbrellas. Some people, I think, are a bit scared by them, but we like them. They look cool. But that was one of the first cultural things we wanted to put in the building. When we moved in, the basement was up to your ankles in water, and it is a little bit of a nod to that as well. And we had that much bad luck when we were building that it couldn’t possibly get any worse as well.
PN: I am Neil Roberts. I have been volunteering at and lending support to community businesses over the last eight years, volunteering at a community bakery called LoveBread in Brighouse, West Yorkshire. On the Community Business Fix I get to shine a light on the projects in which communities are coming together to transform the places they live.
The Community Business Fix is a monthly podcast brought to you by Power to Change, the independent Trust that supports community businesses in England.
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We are devoting this edition to Café INDIEpendent, but, as you will hear, the term ‘café’ doesn’t really do justice to the range of things that go on there. It is a cooperative venture with 150 members. By day it is a place that serves great coffee and is well used by community groups. By night it is a lively music venue. But, day or night, it is somewhere the young can find a listening ear. It is also a well-used venue that is hired out for weddings and events. When you talk to some of the people sitting at the café tables, it is reckoned they have a thousand regulars. It sounds like it was much needed. Here is Stevie, one of the young people that really benefits from Café INDIE.
(S): It is nice to get out of the house. It is just one of those places where you can just hang out. The fact is it is a coffee shop in the day, where you can just pick up a guitar and just play to yourself. There is always something going on here and there are always people you can talk to. So, it is just a good environment.
PN: Scunthorpe, you probably already know, is in the northeast, close to Grimsby and Hull. The town was a major player in the iron and steel industries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact, there is mention of a forge there long before that, in the Domesday Book. Like many industrial towns, the architecture belongs to the period of initial prosperity, and, although British steel still has a major presence there, only 4,500 people are employed in the industry now compared to the 20,000 half a century ago. David Plumtree is Café INDIEpendent’s project coordinator.
David Plumtree (DP): Similar to many industrial northern towns, felt a bit of the pinch over recent years – quite high levels of deprivation, but still a really strong sense of northern working-class roots and community spirit.
PN: So why choose Scunthorpe as a location for Café INDIEpendent? What was there before they opened? David again.
DP: There wasn’t anywhere that I would want to go or things that I necessarily wanted to do, and I felt that there was a real gap for people who were a bit alternative or just weren’t into the mainstream ‘drink until you fall down’ kind of economy that was here.
PN: Before the café, David Plumtree was involved with another project.
DP: I supported a group of young people to set up a vintage clothes store, selling art and the like as well. The young people had full control over that; they were responsible for it, and I was very much in the background, supporting them. And they did really well for a while, but maybe Scunthorpe wasn’t quite ready for vintage, and the young people started to move on. So we decided to wrap the project up and, through that evaluation, speaking to young people, they said that they were keen to see more opportunities for work experience, but they also wanted places to go and things to do and opportunities to access cultural stuff. But they also said they wanted this employability environment that had more hierarchy, more structure, and was closer to the workplace, because they weren’t quite ready to just fly with the entrepreneurial spirit.
So that started to feed into this idea of the coffee and music and whatnot, and how we could really provide something that was lacking for young people.
PN: The clothes project, then, was an important step in identifying the challenges that needed to be addressed.
DP: Once we had a really clear picture of that, we decided to apply for some funding and find a funder that fitted what we were trying to do – and that was The Big Lottery. And so we were really fortunate to open up with a really large grant over five years from The Big Lottery. But it is really important for me to mention that we have always been focused on sustainable independence and earning our own income. We don’t want to be reliant on funders to achieve stuff, because we want to be able to be dynamic and responsive and solve problems really quickly, rather than always having to do what the funders want us to do.
PN: So where did he go for help and advice?
DP: I was fortunate that, over the years of doing all this community development and working with young people, I had built up quite a strong network of people, and maybe a few who owed me favours and whatnot. So, when they saw what we were trying to achieve and that we were trying to do something good for the town, something a bit different, people really rallied round and lent their support from their labour to their time and their skills and various things. On the business side, there wasn’t so much help, I would say. That came from within, and I think it is quite rare that you find people who are business orientated or certainly motivated in that fashion and wanting to do all the good stuff as well. So it was quite rare in that sense.
PN: One of those rare individuals is finance director, Pete Mitchell, who joined the team never having worked on a project like this before.
Pete Mitchell (PM): When I first came in, I was there to be David’s conscience, if you like. We are chalk and cheese, we really are. But the partnership and how it has grown over the last five years, we complement each other. So I think, to run a project like this, you can’t just be one or the other; you have to have a mixture of people like me and people like David.
PN: So, with the core team in place, all they needed now was a venue. They made a bid on one building which failed, but then stumbled across an old stationery shop on the high street. David Plumtree again.
DP: This place was open, but it was enormous, and I thought, ‘No way could we take on something that scale.’ But it was also very, very rundown, so we managed to get it for the same price as we had put in for the other place but recognised there was a hell of a lot more work to do as a result of that.
Everybody got involved from day one. When it came to transforming the building, everybody got their hands dirty and mucked in.
PN: Among those who mucked in were members of the local community who had spotted the activity in the building. Fiona Kirby-Smith, now a partner who works with the café referring young people for support, training and guidance, was one of those who was intrigued by what was going on there.
Fiona Kirby-Smith (FKS): At the time, me and my husband were running community projects in the local town and saw this place and had heard it was roughly going to be something for the benefit of the community. So we were really intrigued.
While the work was still happening on getting the building ready, we snuck in and had a little chat with David and the team, and just really captured their heart for community. It was very similar to our own. So, over time, just started to see it as something that would really benefit the people that we know in our community and the people that we live around and our young people particularly. So started to invite those people to join in with what was going on here.
PN: When David first looked at the building, he didn’t consider the impact the physical space would have on the whole project. The building is open and airy, not just in terms of the light that floods in from the floor-to-ceiling windows, but in terms of the conversations that are going on in here. Picture the kind of massive old department store you used to get dragged around by your mum when you were a kid. Mothball it for 20 years, then open it up again and stock it with bits and pieces that mean something to you. Look, over there is an old Dr Who box with a mirror in it. There is a small garden shed for kids to play in. On that wall shelves of books and games. On another, pictures by local artists you can buy. Maybe spend some time, too, looking at the photo gallery of the place being done up. The staircases take you up from the café to the mezzanine, a place proudly labelled as ‘Where old furniture goes to retire’, or down to the basement – the gig space with a stage waiting for the band to turn up.
I suppose it is a kind of home-from-home for everyone that is welcoming and inclusive. Georgie is one of the young people that came to the café as a volunteer when she was in crisis.
Georgie (G): I couldn’t take a drink out. I couldn’t look at a customer. I remember taking my first drink out and praying that this customer wouldn’t talk to me. And the first thing that he said was, ‘Oh, so what’s this place all about then?’ I didn’t have the words to tell him. I was, ‘It were a café,’ and then I ran off.
I was much quieter and really shy, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself, and I definitely didn’t have confidence in my ability to be a youth worker. And I think I am pretty good at what I do.
PN: After that tentative start, Georgie quickly became an integral member of the team, bossing the café and becoming a barrister. She became more and more engaged with supporting the other volunteers, and a youth work apprenticeship was created for her. She is now part of the staff team and, given what she went through herself, understandably passionate about the place.
G: I think it is important that there is somewhere that anyone can come to, anyone at all. There is no discrimination of any kind. We have volunteers who work with us of varying degrees of abilities. We have got such a variety of customers and groups of people that use the building. Today there is the baby-wearing Sling Library, and then we have got things such as mental health drop-ins and we have support groups for different physical illnesses. I think it is just nice that there is somewhere that people can go where they are welcome, no matter who you are or what you are or anything.
PN: Today is Thursday when Sling Library is open. Sling Library? Here are two young mums who come every month.
Vox Pop (VP): Sling Library is where we have loads and loads of different baby carriers and slings, and we hire them out and we show people how to use them safely.
VP: Café INDIE is just a great venue. They do everything for us. They look after us, don’t mind us making a mess. There is good space for the kids to play. This has been the only place we have ever hosted the Sling Library in Scunthorpe. I don’t know where else we would go.
PN: Alongside Sling Library, Thursday is also the day where the food in the café has a different focus. Here is youth worker Tom Powell.
TP: Vegan Thursdays is a thing we started because there are not that many places that do a lot of vegan food in Scunthorpe, and we wanted to incorporate it with our menu.
VP: I come here on Vegan Thursdays and have vegan food every now and then. So it is great that obviously vegans are catered for, so, again, it is like I suppose what you would call, not necessarily a minority, but there are maybe not that many people in Scunny that are vegan, so it is providing something for them. So, as far as I am concerned, food-wise, it is great and there is something for me to have.
TP: We also do pop-up restaurant nights where we will do like a secret supper. We will also cater for people’s weddings. But we also use that as a way to engage with our young people, really, and, again, it gives them a different experience and different things that they can get involved with and trial out if they want to work in a customer service industry.
PN: With Christmas on its way, plans are afoot for their traditional festive get-together, which sees around 50 people that have played a part in Café INDIEpendent come together for a celebration.
TP: We do it every year. It is one of my favourite things that we do. We invite everyone who has volunteered with us since the project opened, to come and have Christmas dinner with us.
DP: We get them together around a table, usually with some of the local homeless people as well who have been accessing the café for coffee and the like throughout the year, and just have a big traditional dinner.
TP: Like we said earlier about the family and everyone sits down for Christmas dinner; we are no different from any other family with that.
DP: It is a real honour that, because not all of those young people, certainly, will get a general Christmas dinner. So, to be able to provide that is really nice.
PN: To compete with all the other coffee shops, community cafés need to punch above their weight when it comes to the quality of their café. This is partly down to the choice of coffee beans, but equally important is the quality of the barrister training. The team serving up the coffee and the cake are all taking part in a programme that supports young people in developing all sorts of skills, including how to make the perfect latte. Here is project coordinator, David Plumtree, again.
DP: So we work with young people aged 16-25. We target those who have got some former disadvantage, but it is really important to us that the project is universal, and it is open to all. We love it when we have got a graduate working alongside a young offender, because we really believe in the value of sharing and learning from different backgrounds and experiences. Young people then come along, and they get their work experience here. We provide training and youth work support around any issues. For us, it is really critical that that is not time-limited. Sometimes, with our young people, it takes as long as it takes.
PN: So how do the volunteers find themselves there and what kind of work is done with them? Here is youth worker, Tom, and supporting partner, Fiona.
TP: Some of our volunteers, they are self-referred. Some are referred through the Job Centre and different organisations that are also trying to help young people get jobs as well. It doesn’t really matter sometimes how people get referred. It matters when they walk through the door, how they decide that they want to engage with the project. Some people just want to come and make coffee. That is fine. Some people want a place to belong, which is great, and that is also fine.
FKS: For our young people just to have a place, particularly in the social demographic that they are growing up in, for me is really important. It is a different narrative to their day-to-day narrative. It is exceptionally helpful.
TP: We do different bits of work with different people, like we do work with homeless people – sometimes we have helped them get accommodation and we have helped by just having a conversation with them, really. Sometimes all people want is a person to talk to and to feel part of our community, and we are happy to do that with different people who are on different spectrums and different learning disabilities. We are there for people who feel lonely and are struggling with their mental health. We are there, and we try to help everybody that we can, really.
FKS: One particular guy, who actually my husband knew more than me, who had been around for a very long time, he had known him for a while and he had some things that just restricted him in terms of him being able to get jobs or to stick out courses or whatever, and it was genuinely through no fault of his. He came here and ended up on the volunteer programme that they run, and just really got invested in. Now he works in a shop in the local community. So I just think it is beautiful that Café INDIE is really the foundation that people can go from into changing the local community and being in this local place. So it is transforming our town, it really is.
PN: So, one of the measures of success for this community business is helping to transform the lives of its volunteers to see them leave and go on to transform the wider community. It is cyclical. Finance director, Pete Mitchell.
PM: It is seeing that transformation that, when they come to you, really quiet, never had a job before in their lives, and the transformation from that to what we have done, for them then to go off and be contributing is amazing. That is it for me and that is why I am here.
PN: There is a lot of press coverage nowadays about loneliness and social isolation, and that is often taken to mean a condition only the elderly suffer, but it affects the young too, and Café INDIEpendent is determinedly open to those youngsters that might be feeling that isolation but maybe don’t recognise it. Here is Fiona and David Plumtree again.
DP: We think of young people as being connected to everyone throughout the internet and whatnot, but, actually, a lot of them, what they are doing, they are going home, they are playing video games and they are not leaving the house and they are not having the opportunity to actually meet up in person. There are often barriers to access in a lot of social spaces, even in terms of having the money to buy a drink or whatnot. And we try and remove some of those barriers and bring young people together.
FKS: Genuinely, some of our loneliest young people have found a real place to belong in the youth drop-in particularly. Young people who have supported their friends, who are transgender or who are going through things that, on the front in Scunthorpe, isn’t an issue that you face day-to-day, but they have spoken up and that has actually left them quite lonely.
DP: Getting young people out of these silos is truly remarkable, because it seems to me that, particularly young people who may be facing issues – so, for example, children in care or autistic young people, often autistic young people will only experience other autistic young people, and the same with children in care. So, through the volunteer programme, they are encouraged, but also, just by the nature of the beast, kind of forced to mingle outside of those usual social networks, and in person. So developing those communication skills and broader understanding of different individuals. And that is really important to us, because we recognise, even though our programme is not time-limited, we can only be with that young person for so long, whereas, if they are forming positive peer networks, that can last forever, and that can have a bigger impact than anything we can do.
PN: As we have heard in previous episodes, there is often a tension between the business and social aspects of these projects. But, for their long-term survival, a balance has to be achieved. Finance director, Pete Mitchell.
PM: The things that we do – the bar, the gigs and things like that – yes, we make a small amount of money on them, but the main reason we do them is, 1) to train the young people up, and, 2) for the community.
DP: The enterprise has to be there; it pays the bills and it makes sure that we are still able to work with the young people. So we can’t lose sight of that or undervalue its importance, because it is an enabling factor to the good stuff that we want to do. But, for us, it is about keeping the social stuff or the ‘soft and fluffy stuff’, as we call it, at the forefront, and making sure that that is always the focus and that is the deciding factor. So the weight is slightly tipped.
Pete provides that counterbalance to my idealism and focus on the soft and fluffy, and makes sure that we don’t take our eye off that ball. That is really critical that we have got something whose focus is that.
PN: Pete, the financial director, has to make that balance work.
PM: Somebody has got to pay the bills and make sure the lights are on and things like that, and make sure the building is safe. It is a full-time job, coming up with the ideas and making sure that that side of things is running. So you have got to have somebody else on the other side to make sure that everything continues to be as it should be, if that makes sense.
PN: So Café INDIEpendent exists to transform the lives of the young people who come through its doors, to serve the community in different ways, to provide a creative space for artists and to supply great coffee. But it also has an influence on those who run the place. It is hard to show on a balance sheet the value of the conversations going on in all corners of the building, but they all do have a value, and that was something that Pete, who came from a former financial background, took a while to recognise.
PM: My idea of work is you come to work, you do your job, you go home, and you do what you should be doing, and you are good at it. Whereas, the young people that we are working with, they are here to learn. I have never been put in that situation before, where I have got somebody who is learning and maybe making mistakes and things like that.
So, yes, when I first started, that was unacceptable to me. But now I find myself more being the person who understands that they are learning, which is a complete 360 for me. It is not who I was, but it is who I am now. I totally understand the project. I know why we are here and I know what we are here to do. And I think it is difficult to explain to people. You need to give people time, and that is what we are all about. We are about opportunity.
PN: The value of a project such as this, then, is sometimes hard to quantify, which means the members of the cooperative have to be on board with the values. But who do Dave and Pete and the team actually report to?
DP: Our accountability is to our membership and also to our funders, of course, as well. So we hold quarterly membership meetings. There is quite a strong social element to them, so they are not very dry meetings.
PN: Michael is one of the members of the cooperative.
Michael (M): Obviously, if there are any issues that I feel that I should have a say in or are related to me, then I can voice my opinion. And also, I think there are opportunities to actually become a member of the board and stuff like that. It is basically just a democratic process for all the members to get stuck in and get involved.
PN: Café INDIEpendent was awarded a £300,000 grant by Power to Change to help them to buy the building they are in now, to secure the business’ future. Joint head of programmes at Power to Change, Sarah Buchanan, has some useful advice on what does and doesn’t work when it comes to setting up a community café.
Sarah Buchanan (SB): At Power to Change, we do receive quite a lot of applications for community cafés. It is often something that people seem to come to quite naturally as an idea for creating a space that is welcoming for everybody in the local community. Obviously, there is also a very straightforward trading element, the model of a community café; you are going to be selling food and drink in your local community. However, it is quite difficult to make a standalone community café sustainable, particularly if you are operating in quite a deprived area. So it is really worth thinking about is it simply a community café that you want to run or, if you are trying to meet a particular social need, like Café INDIEpendent – they were looking to work particularly with young people and to engage young people and provide them with a space – perhaps there is something over and above a community café that you could be thinking about.
Finding a space is quite challenging; somewhere that is affordable to rent or actually it could be that a space has become available that has been disused for some time. We do have quite a few applications that are looking to transfer a local asset – so a building into community ownership, and that building might be currently owned and run by the local authority or maybe it is not being used at the moment. So Power to Change, as well as offering grant funding, can also offer advice and support as to how best to go about transferring that asset into community ownership.
We have published a success guide for community cafés, and that includes seven top tips through research and talking to community cafés that are running successful, we believe could help you make a success of your project. One of those would be really look at pricing your offer at the right level. Do that little bit of research into your local customer base. Really make sure that there is something on offer that will bring in as many people as you can into your café, but obviously also think about which of the items that you might be able to sell at a slightly higher price, because you have to strike that balance between getting people through the door, but also running a viable business.
PN: Sarah Buchanan there. For more advice on setting up a community café make sure you check the show notes.
So, as the day ends and the café begins to wind down, the action moves downstairs. David shows us around.
DP: So we are in the basement now, which is really where a lot of the evening stuff happens, where the gig venue is. So we have got the stage down here, fully kitted out. We have had some decent bands down here over the years, from [0:26:11] to Inspiral Carpets, Funeral for a Friend, The Beat, Blossoms as well and some of those up-and-coming bands, which is always really interesting to us; to get people just before their break rather than when they have already made it.
PN: At night, Café INDIEpendent serves up a different, no less heady brew of entertainment to its customers. For the youth workers there, it is no less important or fun, but the work goes on.
G: It is really exciting and busy, and it is completely different to during the day, which I think it is nice to have that clear split off to know that, during the day, it is not a drinking venue; it is somewhere that is nice and relaxed and chilled, and, at night time, it just comes alive with music and happiness. It is brilliant.
TP: It is one of the greatest places to be in the world, I think, when the band is on it and there are a lot of people, and they are having a good time, and you can see that it is a lot faster paced. A lot louder, obviously, which, to me, is a great thing. Most of my work is at night, and the young people that we work with on the night, they step up to the mark of having to work when it is busy and serve people.
VP: I come to some of the gigs as well that they have. I have been to a few of those, because it is always quite cheap, and a lot of people that I get on with. Because I come on my own, it is a safe place for me as well.
PN: For Tom Powell, fostering new talent is key to the venue’s success. Some volunteers at the café go on to careers, some find their lives transformed, and a few end up on the radio!
TP: We had a couple of young girls called Marcy and Morgan, who had just turned 16, and they wanted to get involved with volunteering. They got talking to me about music, because they wanted to come to the gigs and events. It turned out that one of them played bass and one of them played drums, and they were like, ‘We want to be in a band and do stuff.’ So I was like, ‘Bring your stuff. We’ll go upstairs. I’ll set the drums up and we’ll do that.’ So they came in, they set up, they had a jam just with me up here. And they are now doing their own band called FINNO, and they are all over BBC introducing. They are doing really well in Hull. That is one of the things which I am most proud that I have had a little bit of involvement with helping them create it and really, really proud of them.
DP: On a Saturday night, up in Scunthorpe, you will often see, around the other bars, fights breaking out, people excessively drunk and just usual, I suppose, city night-time behaviour. And that doesn’t really happen here. So we have been open five years and we have had one punch thrown in anger here in the building in all that time. People walking through the doors start to play by our rules. They recognise that it is a friendly, welcoming place, and they start to behave in that way, from football events to various things; people walk in with a certain impression and they leave that at the door and start to relax and see the positives in everyday things, I guess.
PN: David Plumtree is not a man you can imagine sitting on his laurels. He and his team took on a department store and, with hard work and a strong vision, turned it into much more than a community café. It is a place that changes people’s lives. So what is next for them?
DP: The first mark is achieving a sustainable independence, but then beyond that it is what else we can do. I am starting to see broader issues out there and through collecting information. There needs to be a project that addresses homelessness. There needs to be a project around accommodation and the trades as well. So it is not done. There is more that we can do in this community. And then, beyond that, for us it is around supporting other ventures to set up in other areas, and letting people learn from our experiences and all the things that we got wrong.
S: I come here at least three, four times a week. If I sit on my own in my room, it is rubbish; everything just goes around in my head. I come here, just play a guitar, talk to people, have a coffee. It is just calm. It is just a lot better.
PN: As we do in every show, it is time to ask a community expert for their top tips. This episode it is Roisin Tobin, business manager from Buzz Lockleaze in Bristol. The organisation is embedded in the community of Lockleaze, running three projects that work in areas such as social isolation and improving food culture. They also support the local economy by delivering employment and enterprise support. The shop window of the project is their community café. Here are Roisin’s tips.
Roisin Tobin (RT): So my first tip would always be to, where possible, allow yourself enough lead-in time to really ensure that the necessary engagement is delivered within the community, and consulting with that community about exactly what they want to see from a particular community asset, and certainly from a social space. This is important because, really, the success of any community business requires garnering that community buy-in from inception.
The next tip that I would have is to really be flexible and evolve with the needs of your community. We deliver a lot of wellbeing activities from the café, and many of those activities we have started with one idea in mind, such as our weekly games club, where we had envisaged it from conversations we had had with certain members of the community as being a space where families could come of an evening or an afternoon and play games together. But, actually, the reality of the situation, once it started, is that the residents that were coming along were mostly residents with learning difficulties from the local supported living accommodation. So that is now one of our most successful clubs.
The next tip would be just taking the time to really reflect on your strategy and your initial business plan. When we set up the café, it was really hoping to provide an accessible supply line to affordable, healthy, nutritious food, and, as such, we offer fruit and veg at a very low mark-up and the same in the café. But we operate in a very low-income neighbourhood, so it is very hard to generate a sustainable business model from that. So we have had to spend a lot of time reflecting on other financial models that more suit the neighbourhood in which we are based.
PN: That was Roisin Tobin from Buzz Lockleaze. If you want to learn more about their story, check out the website at buzzlockleaze.co.uk. And, if you are near Lockleaze in Bristol, pop along for a visit.
I hope you have enjoyed listening to the story of Café INDIEpendent. If you are thinking about doing something similar or are in the middle of your community business adventure, get the latest news on events, grants and support on the Power to Change website. That is powertochange.org.uk. We will be adding links and other useful information on the show notes for this episode, and you can also connect with us by following on twitter @thecbfix. We would love to hear your thoughts on the show and your stories about community activism.
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You have been listening to a Fieldwork production, commissioned by Power to Change. It was presented by me, Neil Roberts; research and production by Curtis James; sound and music by Simon James; writing and executive production by Chris Paling.