Making it as a Community Cafe
We’ve been in conversation with Hannah, serial social entrepreneur and creator of beautiful cafe spaces, to talk about how she started not just one, but two community cafes in Manchester.
Hannah is the brains behind both Home Community Cafe in Didsbury and Milk & Honey Cafe on Oxford Road. We sat down with Hannah to hear about how she managed to transform unused spaces into places where people from all walks of life can come, and community can grow whilst they enjoy good food and good coffee together.
We hope you might feel inspired by this conversation to do the same!
Hannah – could you introduce yourself and tell us about your current role at Milk & Honey, and also about your previous community cafe venture Home?
I’ll begin with Home – my role there was Founder/Director. Home grew organically from a need I saw around me for a place for people to connect in Didsbury. Home is in an affluent area, but there were still many issues and social concerns that were hidden beneath the surface.
I thought a cafe would be a good way to solve this issue – good food and drink is always a good way to get people to come together! Before starting, I had to think about what skills I needed to develop the idea, and it took a long time to get there. I trained, studied and did a huge amount of research – I decided on which model would work best for what I hoped to deliver and eventually created a charity. After considering what skills I needed on the Board, I asked a group of carefully chosen people to become trustees, and then became the Founder/Director of the charity employed to deliver the charitable objectives through developing and launching the café.
After a couple of years, I left Home – a painful move but the right one – and began to work on developing Milk & Honey. I was appointed to a Director role at St Peter’s House, which is the chaplaincy at the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and the RNCM. At the front of St Peter’s House was a derelict cafe space – a hugely wasted resource for the organisation. Part of my role was to develop the engagement of the chaplaincy with the staff and students of the universities and across the wider city. I worked to clarify the remit of the chaplaincy, then oversaw the ‘re-brand’ and re-launch.
I knew from the outset that I wanted to refine the Home model and open a similar social enterprise café that addressed the needs of this very different context. Milk & Honey cafe is now the main way in which we make contact with staff and students, build community in the middle of the campuses and so deliver our charitable objectives. My role now includes overseeing the direction of the café, managing the cafe team and making sure that the cafe is always delivering on its mission.
When did you start Home and when did you start Milk & Honey?
2010 to 2012 was when I started to work on the model for Home. I was also having babies at that point!
During that time I was articulating the need I could see for such a space and developing the model, but Home didn’t actually open until the beginning of 2015! I kept turning the idea over in my head – meeting multiple challenges and setbacks along the way – but trying to engage with people who could help me deliver the vision.
I was trained in business and social enterprise throughout this time, as well as having a great mentor, reading and researching as far and wide as I could – and looking after my young children. I basically did as much learning as I possibly could!
For two years before opening Home, the focus of my life was trying to open it. In terms of set-up funding, it’s worth remembering that most founders don’t pay themselves throughout this whole time. If that time was valued, that time would cost a lot.
What was your working life like when Home first opened its doors?
It was surreal, in that I’d imagined this thing for so long, and now there were actual people here. It was bizarre! What were all these people doing in my imaginary cafe?
I soon found that the hours that I was working were completely unsustainable. I had really young children at this time – but I was still opening the cafe, getting the food ready for the day, training volunteers, engaging customers, placing orders and planning for the next day. Then, when everybody had left, I’d be cleaning.
At that time we were open for three days a week, which I thought would be easier to do. I quickly learned that it makes life a lot harder, as you are always dealing with food waste and ordering issues. You can’t keep things for the next few days, so it was really hard to manage stock. We quite quickly went to four days, then to five days after that.
How long did you have this intense work schedule for until you started to delegate?
It was about two or three months. I remember a friend coming round to meet me after work, and I was completely burned out. The café was busy every day and finances were better than projected, we had great volunteer engagement and the café’s profile was growing really quickly – but I just wasn’t enjoying the work. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to carry on living well and being healthy like this.
At that point, I realised the very minimum requirement was a person to clean at the end of the day. After while– through café income and a successful funding bid – I was able to increase staffing in other areas too.
I look back to that time and can see I learned an awful lot from making mistakes. A cafe needs to be sustainable, not just financially, but for the people involved. If your life is being consumed by this thing you tried so hard to get going then something is wrong.
It was passion and drive, coupled with inexperience. But as someone wisely encouraged me before I opened Home, “Nobody has opened a food business, until they’ve opened a food business!” Which is so true. Nobody’s done it until they’ve done it.
How much funding did you need to secure in order to start the process of opening?
It was very different for the two cafes.
St Peter’s House and Home Community Cafe are both CIOs (charities), so this is specific for charity funding rather than the CIC (community interest company – social enterprise) model.
A business partner and I initially made a loan of about £12,000 to the Home charity for a basic set up, which was written into the agreement that this would be paid back to us without interest. We saw it as a gift to offer to the community.
I wrote a business plan and created financial projections to show it would be a viable model. We also had to work really hard with the main stakeholder – the church in which Home is located. The church helped to prepare the space, but there were multiple challenges in developing a space that would be shared. For example, they redid the flooring before we moved in – but this was my learning ground for managing complex stakeholder relations!
For Milk & Honey, it was very different. I held the vision for what the space could be, but I had to make people believe in something before it existed. As well as sound business plans and financials, funders need to believe in a vision.
We received around £25,000 in grants from two funders for Milk & Honey – two of the denominations who were supporters of the chaplaincy. From that, we could start from scratch, do the building work that was required and replace the kitchen. I designed the café space, and then spent a lot of time on eBay, ‘upcycling’ what was already there and sourcing old furniture!
I took all the learning from Home to Milk & Honey. I made sure that we had reserved funds to pay staff before day one. I was confident that we were able to pay staff for 2 weeks before opening and for at least a month after that. The team we brought together are brilliant – they believed in the vision for Milk & Honey from the outset and took the risk of joining at pre-launch stage.
How did you decide what was going to be on the menu for the cafes, the price point and the suppliers you use?
The menus at both cafes had to take account a number of local factors. Firstly, working with volunteers I wanted to keep the kitchen as low risk as possible, which meant no meat. Wider ethical and environmental reasons come into that decision too. So Milk & Honey and Home both have vegetarian menus. But we’ve never said we’re ‘a vegetarian café’’. I’ve had customers saying at both cafes that they’ve been coming in for weeks, but they’ve only just realised it was vegetarian.
With Home, a further consideration was that the anticipated customer base included a lot of families with young children. So the menu included a lot of child-friendly items. For example, cheese on toast and pots of toddler-friendly stuff – but all prepared and presented well, in ways which challenged the ‘kids menu’ idea.
At Milk & Honey, we have a professional chef who has brought his own twist and amazing food skills to the menu. Plus we have loads of students coming through – so a lot of people on Instagram!
Also, I think as soon as the word ‘community’ or ‘charity’ is attached to a business there is an assumption that things are going to be a bit rubbish! I really wanted to challenge this from the outset with both menus. I wanted people to realise that this food was really quality – and hopefully even better than what you’d get elsewhere in a commercial café!
If these are going to be places of belonging, nurture and care, then we are not just going to give you rubbish. We are going to care for you via the food we serve you. Everything we do, including the food and drink must always convey something about goodness and nurturing.
Also, very significantly, I really believe that everyone involved in the food industry should never forget that there are huge numbers of people living in food poverty. That should always be in our mind and affect everything we do. So for example, in terms of sourcing and suppliers, where can we look to reduce food waste? How can we teach skills in basic cooking using simple, affordable ingredients? And what can we do with our menus that take these issues into account? There are 600,000 people living in Manchester living in food poverty. We have to be really aware of this issue. The Food Poverty Alliance’s report into this is a stark reminder but helpful.
This factor also affects our plan for financial surplus use – both cafés have a model which re-invests money into local projects once we cover our own costs.
Price point wise – look at others around you and price yourself accordingly. Again, countering this idea of ‘community’, you need to convey quality in what you are selling. I think there may have been people who were expecting a 50p cup of tea, but if you are putting a lot of care and work into your cafe, you should value it correctly and be confident about that. Home is in an affluent area, whilst Milk & Honey has a more diverse customer group – but, you have to value what your selling by getting the price right. We’ve aimed for a 60-70% profit margin which with vegetarian food can be easier to do, but it really varies depending on the menu item and what people in that area will pay.
For suppliers – we choose always choose people that align with our values. It is tricky though – where to draw the line? Thinking about a chocolate cake, for example, can every ingredient be fair trade/organic/sustainable? That’s really hard. I’ve yet to meet a supplier that would make absolutely every item fair trade. And if it did, I’m not sure if we could make enough on that piece of cake for it to be profitable.
We want to express our values through our supply chains. We work with Manchester Veg People, for example, and buy their surplus produce. Whenever we are finding a new supplier, we will always try to find one that fits with our vision and ethos first.
How does someone plan sales for their community cafe?
Turnover for any cafe needs at minimum to cover it’s costs, and but in our charity context we also aim to generate a surplus for development and community investment. Daily sales totally vary based on different factors, like the weather, school holidays, election days, location etc.
At Home, our customer-base was significantly family and people with young children based, so that often meant that we’d be very quiet over school holidays. At Milk & Honey, we experience a similar thing when students go home for their breaks – but still keep busy with University staff and our broader customer base.
My advice is to do realistic projections, not hopeful ones! Be prepared to have your business affected by seasonality. Really it takes at least a year in operation to really know what’s reasonable to expect in terms of sales.
Also, do your market research by going round and seeing how busy places are at different times. Watch and be aware of what’s happening. Locate yourself in the place you are planning on opening. And also – and this is important – be switched on to food trends that affect your customer base.
How do you create welcoming, well ‘branded’, warm places of welcome for people to meet and spend time in?
Creating a consistent brand is more than the physical space – the style and ‘tone of voice’ of the café in any literature from recruitment to the publicity to signage – all that stuff builds an idea in someone’s head of what they are expecting when they walk into the cafe for the first time Likewise, when you do social media for your cafe make sure the tone of voice fits with any other communications. So make sure it’s coherent and consistent.
I am talking about the personality of the space. I am a creative and very visual person. I imagine the spaces I am creating with a personality. For example, if I am doing the social media for St Peter’s House, this would have a different tone of voice to Milk & Honey. I often think about Milk & Honey as the younger sister – more likely to use emojis and informal language! Create that feel and personality before people even come into the space.
In terms of the physical place, when I design a cafe space, I try to create nooks – places people can retreat into. I always try to have a big communal area where people can sit around a big table. But I have little areas with a mix of seating, and a consistent feel to it all. Imagine the different customers you want to attract, and design the space with them in mind.
I also think its really important to know your strengths. Some people will read this, and think ‘but I can’t do that!’ That’s OK. If your strengths are in the artistic, design and creative things, go for it and be confident in your style and presentation. If that’s not your thing, that’s fine too. If your strength isn’t around branding, then find someone that can do it. Be really good at your ‘thing’, whatever that may be – and find others who share your vision to support you in other areas.
What’s the top piece of advice you’d give to someone thinking of starting a community cafe?
Remember that all the people you see looking very confident were beginners once! Ask lots of questions, don’t be afraid to ask for support. Listen to people, take things on board. If you’ve not got the skills you need – investigate where you may be able to access training.
Also – value your life, family, and friends. Don’t let your project consume your whole life – remember you are not your social enterprise. Whatever makes you you, that’s what you are bringing to your project. Don’t sideline that. Hold onto what you love, and enjoy the journey!
Finally, don’t hold on too tight to your project. If you are setting something up for the good of the community, it’s not about you after a point. Think of it as a gift, and it’s ok to let it go. That’s not to say that this is easy – it will be really painful after pouring your heart and soul into something. Letting go of Home was like a bereavement – I’m not involved at all now, which is strange as I see it change and become something new. But that’s OK – letting go of one thing can mean another thing can grow, and seeing Milk & Honey flourish has been amazing. When the time is right, new life always finds a way.