Coffee and compassion for a better community

How Heilige Boontjes and others are using our thirst for the perfect coffee to provide training and employment opportunities to people who find themselves marginalised in today’s society.

By Vicki Hughes
MD / Founder – Fugu PR

Recently, I was lucky enough to be invited to join the SPARK Safari to Holland. It left a big impression and I was blown away by the entrepreneurial zest, combined with the intense human compassion, that I witnessed from all of the social enterprise founders I met.

There is nothing more powerful than being able to witness first-hand the positive effect that a business is having on its immediate community – and this was what happened when we stopped for a coffee in Rotterdam at Heilige Boontjes.

Housed in the beautiful building that was once the city’s police station and cells, Heilige Boontjes is already a rather wonderful place to enjoy the first latte of the morning. But beneath the hipster vibe is a highly successful purpose driven business, generating a gross revenue of €1.2 million per year, whilst providing opportunities and training for the city’s young offenders.

One of its founders, Rodney, is an ex-offender who went on to become a social worker. Rodney knew that society was not set up to reintegrate young people after they come out of prison. They are rarely offered ‘regular’ jobs and often struggle to build a normal life after being institutionalised.

Along with a local police officer and a board of trustees, Rodney set up Heilige Boontjes to provide young offenders with a path back into society, and their programme has been a phenomenal success. Of the kids that complete the full 50-week training scheme, 70% have gone on to find further employment. Some have even found work in the café long term, such as a previously successful drug dealer, who is now their best sales person, and an ex-dealer, who knows the streets inside out and is now the company’s top coffee distributor.

The café has developed a strong customer base. They come for great coffee, great service, and maybe just to feel a little better about where they are spending their money. With the support of the city, they are helping to give young people a second chance.

Heilige Boontjes is breaking down barriers and providing alternative routes for training and recruitment. And they are not alone. I know of at least two other businesses in my home town of Brighton that are looking to a make positive impact using a similar model.

The first one is Team Domenica, which was set up to help young adults with learning disabilities find employment and have a greater purpose and role in society. With 94% of people with learning disabilities in the UK unemployed (1.5 million), the team offer young people a full training course to develop their chances of employment, to build their life skills and offer greater independence. The attached Café Domenica (great coffee again) also offers practical real work experience. This model has created a 25 per cent employment rate amongst their candidates, compared with the national average of 5.8 percent for people with learning disabilities.

The second is an initiative set up to help people with a history of homelessness build their employment skills in the catering sector. Dine Catering Project is run by Brighton Housing Trust and gives people the skills and experience in food hygiene, budgeting, menu planning, food preparation, cooking and serving food to build a career in catering.

All of the above examples are targeted at helping specific, marginalised groups, but the values of inclusion and opportunity that they champion are no less relevant to the wider business community. It may not seem like much, but any business offering a first step on the ladder through a fully paid internship is opening up opportunities to the widest possible talent pool – and not just restricting them to people who can afford to work for free. And in the end, this is why we set up our own paid and mentored internship scheme, the Fugu Project, to provide a viable pathway for people looking to enter an industry that has a history of offering unpaid roles to those desperate to gain experience.