Meaningful eats: London's charitable food scene
These London social enterprises combine food and philanthropy. We explore the pop-ups, cafés and restaurants that are about much more than filling your stomach
By Clare Finney
Published: Friday 22nd April 2016
Creativity, war-torn countries, owl conservation, mental health: the reasons cited for setting up food joints which serve some sort of 'higher purpose' are as varied as the grub they serve with it.
At heart, though, lies the obvious common denominator: eating is something we all have to do. The need is universal; it transcends divisions of race, religion and – in the case of last year's infamous owl café, which featured actual owls – even species.
When done well, in good company, food has an infinite capacity to make everyone feel better. Is it any wonder, then, that the number of cafés, restaurants and pop-ups created to 'make a difference' as well as feed people are starting to soar? Well, yes and no: for, while the success of, say, the Dragon Café (the UK's first mental health café) or the Syrian Supper Club (which has raised thousands for Syrian refugees) is indisputable, there's no shortage of articles parodying this recent trend. What next, asked the Guardian last year, after the owl café flap – a Boris café? A restaurant for families prone to arguments? Raising money through novelty pop-ups is all well and good, but the public – and indeed the organisers – seem to have drawn a line at the Blobfish Café, which was rumoured to open last summer.
"Next summer, we are proud to be opening the world's first pop-up aquarium in the heart of east London. We currently have three Blobfish all packed and ready for their London holiday," said the organizers when the news was announced last June. The food and drink would be gourmet, with top chefs and a full, eight-course, deep-sea-themed tasting menu. The specially designed tank would give each customer a view of the blobfish. Yet by July its Facebook and Twitter feed had fallen as silent as the watery depths in which its subjects dwell, and the team stopped responding to emails.
Marine conservation biologist professor Callum Roberts appears to have seen it coming: "As with any deep-sea species, it's quite difficult to get them to survive – it takes a great deal of specialist skill to keep deep-sea creatures in an aquarium. I would question if it's all a prank," he told Mashable last year. Maybe he'll be proven wrong: after all, there's no definitive sign the café has been cancelled, and when the pop-up owl-themed café Annie the Owl was besieged by animal rights activists before it even opened (they objected to the potent mix of owls, crowds and cocktails), the organiser did respond, by removing the alcohol, reducing the amount of food, and moving the venue from Soho to east London, where space was less of a premium and the owls could be better cared for. The result was spectacularly popular, with a 125,000-strong run on the tickets.
"A lot of people are calling us a café, or a smoothie bar. We are not either of these things," chief organizer Sebastian Lyall announced shortly before the pop-up opened. "You can't order drinks or food – you receive a smoothie and canapés." Profit was bound for an owl charity, and food and drink was conspicuously no longer the focus. When the reviews came out, it received little comment. But while on balance this was a wise move on the part of the owl organisers, it doesn't mean cuisine and good causes are mutually exclusive – especially not if you intend to stay open for more than one week.
Far from it. As far as Ruth Rogers is concerned, it's the food – spiced chickpea mash and avocado sandwich, homemade pie of the day, scrambled eggs and so on – that initially draws people into her Shoreditch meaningful eatery, the Canvas café: "They come for the food, they feel the atmosphere. Then they discover they can write on the walls, do a workshop, see some comedy."
London's social enterprises dishing up good food for good causes – in pictures:
Writing on the walls, the sofa and the occasional table is the hallmark of a venue at which graffiti is not just allowed but actively encouraged: after a successful installation at Edinburgh festival in which Rogers deposited her white living-room sofa on the Royal Mile and encouraged people to write how they felt about their bodies upon it, she felt inspired to establish "a permanent space where people can open up in that way about their bodies and feelings." She helped found Body Gossip, an organisation that campaigns through arts and education to combat self-consciousness and inspire body confidence in people of all ages, sizes and shapes, and she was looking to gather some more stories.
The sofa had drawn reflections even from people for whom the prospect of writing on paper was inconceivable. "I had people's husbands or sisters coming up to me and saying 'I had no idea that she felt like that – thank you.' I thought it would be all penises and swear words," she laughs. "Instead it was honest and brave comments and opinions." You'll find many of these on the café's tempting white walls: scribbled high above tables, tucked away behind chair legs, written large and small, messy and neat.
'Coffee in the morning sun. Dylan in the background,' says one, in response to a question Rogers wrote on the wall: 'Where is your happy place?' 'What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?' says another, unprompted in a corner of its own. "It affirms your sense of humanity – not just seeing people write responses, but just seeing them reading them, and smiling to themselves." The fact it's a café and not a dedicated arts venue is not just incidental to this, Rogers continues – it's everything. "Cafés are, by their very nature, places where people take the time to think – to open up. When we were thinking of how we could fund this space and encourage people to come along, a café seemed like the best thing."
Just over the river in Borough, fellow mental health campaigner Sarah Wheeler had made a similar observation some years previously. After a psychotic episode robbed her of three years of her life, she was nevertheless left with a feeling that those similarly affected would benefit from a dedicated café. "During those three years I spent a lot of time in cafés and pubs. They were, in effect, my drop-in centres, where I could exist incognito," she explains over tea. "They were places I could go to be on my own but with people, to have some nourishing food and somehow feel incrementally better."
Concluding that a café was decisively healthier than a pub, she set about transforming the crypt of St George's Church into the Dragon Café – a venue that, each Monday, could accommodate anyone and everyone who felt the need for a place that had food and activities, and that was "safe", as she explains. "That's what most people say about it. Safe to be your own person, and yet to feel part of something outside yourself, which you can engage in or not as you please."
Does the food contribute to this feeling of safety and wellbeing? Of course it does. You don't need to have suffered from mental illness to know that how you feel affects what you eat, and vice versa. Both Rogers and Wheeler felt it was "our responsibility as a social enterprise to prepare healthy food for people, and to fill them up," Rogers says.
When Wheeler was unwell, she subsisted on a diet of booze and infrequent marmalade sandwiches: dishes like the roasted vegetable coconut curry with couscous and Asian 'slaw – on the Dragon's menu when I visit – were not an option, and even the food provided by official mental health services are not a patch on the rich, colourful bounty that patrons of the Dragon Café enjoy each week.
Being located a mere sourdough loaf's throw from Borough Market has made it the happy recipient of all the leftovers from Ted's Veg and Bread Ahead. The menu was developed with the chef of the iconic (and now closed) Food for Thought in Covent Garden, and is vegetarian to keep costs down, nutritional content high and food fresh. For many of the visitors, the lunch and dinner they enjoy at Dragon Café is the only fresh meal they get all week.
For many of the visitors, the lunch and dinner they enjoy at Dragon Café is the only fresh meal they get all week
"At the café it is possible to be seen as a real individual with nothing to hide, and to feel a sense of shared community," enthuses one of the visitors, Jaquie. "I have enjoyed delicious, nurturing and cheap food that has helped me to look after myself when I wasn't eating properly." Ask any one of the 200 people who attend the Dragon Café each week and you'll get a similar response. When Virginia Woolf wrote that "one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well", she wasn't, I am sure, referring purely to food itself, but to the whole experience. It's to that end that Wheeler and her volunteers ensure each meal at the Dragon Café meets a standard that reflects positively on their patrons: from the raw ingredients to the way they are served: "Attitude is so important. We strive to create a friendly, non-judgemental environment," says Sarah – a philosophy that extends right through to the cutlery and crockery they are using.
"We use proper plates and proper cutlery. All of this has an effect on mental wellbeing – it's not a second-rate offering." As a visitor who chose to remain anonymous pointed out, "everybody feels like somebody here." It's a far cry from the disposable utensils that dominate the mental health service. Indeed, so stark is the difference, the Dragon Café is increasingly being hailed by local services as a care model. "We hope to work more closely with them to improve the user experience within the sector. That will make our funding, currently from one charity [Maudsley Hospital], more secure in the future, too."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Dragon Café is not the only food joint filling the holes left by government funding cuts. Old Spike Roastery, another social enterprise, is tackling homelessness through serving coffee and roasting beans. "The inspiration behind it came after one of the co-founders visited a café run by deaf and blind women in Vietnam. He realised it was possible to start a business that had a clear social mission to help vulnerable members of the community," explains Richard Robinson, another co-founder. "As homelessness has been steadily rising, it felt like an obvious sector to focus our attention on. Coffee felt like a great area to use as the foundation of our business, not least because of the amazing growth it has seen in recent years."
More than a mere fundraiser, Old Spike Roastery is a place where the homeless can learn coffee roasting and barista skills
to improve their job prospects: a similar idea to that behind social enterprise the Unity Kitchen in Camden, which helps disabled people gain catering experience and qualifications.
Of course, social enterprises are nothing new – defined as organisations that use commercial strategies to serve the community and often tackle a social or environmental need, their UK origins appear to lie in the 19th century, with the Cooperative group – the Co-op – set up in Rochdale to provide an affordable alternative to poor-quality and adulterated food and provisions, using any surplus to benefit a community. It's a long way from there to the Dusty Knuckle bakery, which employs youth offenders and early school leavers to make the beautiful artisan loaves served at the Canvas (and now in their own shipping container-turned-café). But then, the history of social enterprises that actually have a targeted, tangible impact has not been continuous. It wasn't until the 1990s that the idea of the social enterprise was resurrected on a small scale – and not until very recently indeed that the connection was made between London's incredible food revolution and doing good.
Rose Lukas is a co-founder and organizer of the Syrian Supper Club, which raises funds and awareness for the Syrian refugee crisis. It was one of the first suppers to 'pop up', as it were, and one of very few to align itself with a cause. The disparity between the fairly exclusive, £200-a-head meals associated with 'fundraising dinners' makes me reluctant to use the term to describe these monthly, casual affairs serving food at £35 a head and education in the form of a speaker who has recently been in Syria.
While not officially a social enterprise, it does adopt a sustainable and ethical approach: directing all profit to charity, using good, local food, and putting the motive at the heart of the meal rather than as an after thought. "The three founders had lived and worked in Syria for years, and had to leave in 2011 when the crisis escalated," says Lukas. Far from being a case of blind patronage, the money raised goes straight to the friends they made while living in their house in Damascus; a house where food, she continues – "whether making marmalade, walnut soup and cauliflower cake or roasting quail, frying calf's liver and eating blood oranges" – was always a key ingredient.
"Some guests are Syrian, some want to know more. Some couldn't even point Syria out on a map," Lukas says simply. They will leave having learned that – and plenty more besides – but the initial draw for the latter diners will probably have been the brilliant, and brilliantly reviewed, food. Guest chefs in the form of Ruth Quinlan of E5 Bakehouse and Greg Malouf have contributed their considerable skills to several events, and more collaborations are in the pipeline.
Like Canvas, Dragon, Old Spike and even the elusive Blobfish café, the Syrian Supper team know the power the promise of good food can wield over Londoners, particularly when coupled with the good design which is so evident in their marketing materials. "I think there is sometimes an inclination for products that are deemed 'charitable' to be seen as lower quality," Robinson of Old Spike observes. Their branding says the contrary: clean lines, quality photography and, inside, a cool, rustic feel suffused with the warm, rich smell of quality beans, expertly roasted. "We really wanted the initial communication around a coffee to be around quality, as opposed to its social benefits. To prove our taste credentials, we felt it important that we used only the highest-quality beans."
The team know the power the promise of good food can wield over Londoners
Today – in London, at least – the look and taste of the new wave of social ventures are indistinguishable from their for-profit contemporaries. At the same time, there is a growing appetite for something more from our thriving food scene than just, well, food. This need is to some extent being answered by novelty cafés – the Creme Egg Café being the latest to join the throng– but these are by nature short-lived and, as the hoo-ha around the owl café showed, often controversial.
What the more sustainable social eating houses seem to offer is a more holistic way of converting our universal love for food into something philanthropic: for there's nothing like a chilli avocado-topped piece of artisan sourdough toast to show that man really can't live by bread alone. ■
Want to find more social enterprises using food to do good? Read our guide to London's charitable pop-ups, cafés and restaurants.