Church Coffee Shop 3 years on
To open a quality coffee shop in a deprived part of northern Portsmouth, selling fair trade drinks and healthy food at a price the community can afford, helping transform the Church, and congregation, in which it was based in the process. Calling it a Coffee shop was deliberate to inject a sense of quality and value into the community. 3 years in though we have found people regularly call it a Café instead, albeit one they highly value and praise. In sharing about it here, it should be noted it is but one model of the ways Churches and Community Groups can use the opportunities for developing a centre for community through having Café provision.
What was the inspiration?
After years of thought and prayer, the small congregation, which had a vast Victorian building, launched a project to develop the church for the benefit of the community. One of the ideas that emerged right from the start was that if it was truly to be a place of welcome there should be a coffee shop in the entrance. So it has proved, often being described as providing, literally, a window to see the Church community and its varied services.
Who is the project for?
Buckland tends to be a ‘Cinderella’ area of the city and the feeling was the coffee shop should be for the whole community with good food and drinks in a quality environment, but at prices local people can afford. As well as serving individuals of all ages, we have a comfortable lounge space adjoining the coffee shop which is a particular favourite with parents and young children.
What advance planning was done?
We sent out 1000 letters asking for ideas from local residents. We also talked to other churches already running coffee shops. We spent a lot of time planning the space to give it an attractive and fun feel. In the end we chose to use some of the artefacts from the original church – chapel chairs, pews, an organ manual and a small section of the original pulpit.
We also gave a lot of thought as to whether to have paid staff or volunteers. In the end we went for two people job sharing supported by volunteers. This worked for some time, but it became apparent that running such a commercial venture largely on a voluntarily base was a real challenge in this context, and so it reverted to employing staff, but with a commitment to pay a living wage, and avoid Zero hours contracts. Volunteers have been offered space to work at the Café, and benefitted from the social interaction gained. One has gone onto to gain the confidence, which she felt she lacked, to register to train for a nursing qualification. So we still consider taking on volunteers as part of the mission of the Church and Café. Paying staff does introduce a significant financial challenge, but fortunately other Church income for now enables us to support the Café in being financially sustainable.
What resources did you need and how did you find them?
The coffee shop was part of a much bigger project involving giving from members, the URC Synod Trust and charities. The Veolia Environmental Trust donated £39,000 specifically for the coffee shop. Whilst most of our equipment was new we were also fortunate to pick up quality second hand equipment from a café which was closing down. There are social enterprises and initiatives like the Repair Café (a relatively new project in Portsmouth, now meeting monthly at the Buckland Church) who help recycling and repurposing capital equipment. One might note one challenging balance needed here; for as worthy as using recycled material is it need replacing sooner. We have had in the third year of operating invested in a number of new pieces of kitchen and Café equipment, which had worn out. Depreciation is a constant factor that one has to face and plan for.
How did the congregation get on board?
The congregation saw the coffee shop as an important part of their project from early on in their planning for the building. They also agreed to subsidise it for the first year, and have repeated that in following years. Volunteers help with things like painting period chairs, and in the early days volunteering alongside the paid staff. Many also offer support by being regular customers and using it for special events. We have found the catering skills of the Café manager, who happens to be a Church member, a great asset. One event many people regularly book, are High cream teas for family and other groups.
How long did it take from the initial idea to opening the doors?
Because the coffee shop was part of a much bigger project it took over four years. This covered consultation with the congregation and the community, developing the plan with the Synod and architect and raising the funds. The building work took around seven months. It would clearly be much shorter for a church just transforming an existing room.
What regulation/legislation did you have to be aware of?
Food hygiene, allergy advice, safeguarding, health and safety, and employment legislation/good practice all need to be considered. As time has gone on we have had to get specialist financial advice, support in setting up wi-fi, cashless banking and so on. Fortunately being a United Reformed Church there are specialist advisors, in employment matters for instance, who have been a great source of support. A local businesswoman also offered her moral support and advice, which has been greatly appreciated, helping to resolve a number of operational matters.
On a practical level you will need to inform your council’s environmental health team to get a food hygiene certificate and ensure that all paid staff and as many volunteers as possible have a level 2 food safety and hygiene certificate. There are a number of companies who do an on line course and charge in the region of £10-£20+VAT. Two that we have used are ESKY e-learning and Virtual College. It is also important to get the right balance between being a responsible and supportive employer on the one hand and protecting the legal and moral employment responsibilities of the church on the other. For churches unable to access free employment advice it is probably best to pay for it. Employment law every year gets more and more complex, so it is vital to think this through early on. Once revenue gets to a certain level you may also find questions arising about liability for tax, and Business Rates, and so having specialist advice is highly recommended for these matters. Having a good working relationship with your local council officers and people in Voluntary Sector networks, can also be a great encouragement.
In terms of volunteers there are fewer legal obligations than for employees. However we have a duty to support them with training and to ensure their safety. If you are to retain them you need to make them feel valued. They will not warm to being regarded as ‘free labour’. They will want to feel committed to the values and ethos of the project, and having vocational worth. Finally you need to inform your insurance company that you are both employing people and using volunteers on a regular basis. You will find that with volunteers you have to begin with matching their efforts to their particular skills, interests and passions.
If you have an espresso coffee machine your insurance company may require an annual certificate to show that the machine has been serviced. (Some insurance companies require, and will charge you for, their engineer to be present at the service.)
Any problems or important things to do?
Our main issue is the tension on the one hand between paying fair wages and serving fair trade drinks etc. and on the other charging prices that are affordable for local people. Having financial backing to cover shortfalls is vital. Churches may not be able to access the usual sources of financial support a start-up business might have (e.g. Bank Capital Loans), and so this needs careful attention. Setting up a financial reporting mechanism is vital.
IBEX’s Portsmouth office now has a small library of helpful books that can be referenced should anyone want to take these matters forward.
Many churches go down the road of spending much less money and fully staffing with volunteers. This is a tried and tested model which can work well, depending on your location. However if you are considering paid staff our feeling is you need to create a quality environment to generate the income required to cover fair salaries.
What impact has this project had on the life of the community?
It is well used by the local community and others who work within the church premises. It has also been used by Hampshire Constabulary for ‘Cops and Coffee’ and by the Council for surveys on local issues. Many local voluntary sector people, and Church workers, come in and use the space to meet with people for mentoring and support meetings, finding the atmosphere highly conducive to such encounters.
How has this changed the relationship between the church and the community?
The Church has become more ‘visible’ with the removal of railings and gates and the introduction of glass doors and windows facing the road. Local people are being drawn in and asking to use the premises for community events. Footfall in the coffee shop is now well over 300 per week.
How has the life of the Church been transformed by the project?
We are a much more confident and welcoming congregation and we have attracted a small number of additional attenders on Sundays. Even those who do not necessarily regard Church positively will comment that they believe the Café is ‘their Church and place of community’, which was and is the intention all along.