Learning for Community Cafes

Perhaps its my reputation as a coffee obsessive but a colleague recently asked me if I had any advice for community cafes, since we’ve supported many.

Glyn Wylfa - Glyn Wylfa Community Enterprise and Heritage Centre 2

My ‘off-the-top of my head’ learning points were:

  • Like all businesses, cafes need strong control of their cost of sale and pricing of goods which reflects that. This means having a good sense of food costs and waste, ordering and stock, staffing costs, opening hours and prices that are appropriate given any nearby competitors.
  • Footfall is key for cafes so understanding how many people normally pass the site, the other local cafe options, and having marketing plans that reflect this makes a huge difference. The name you pick can help – or hinder. Research your brand ideas with potential customers.
  • Successful cafes plan in maintenance and improvement, updating equipment and keeping in line with customer expectations (flat white!) and services (free WiFI!).
  • To generalise a bit, its probably not wise to start a café thinking it will make lots of surplus or bring lots of new people into your community facility. Cafes do well to cover their own costs. And it’s a big ask for them to create footfall from nothing. But they will draw people in if they are passing and keep people in your building longer, which could provide a great platform to get them involved in other activities.
  • Even if they don’t create lots of income for the community, cafes can be a social good in themselves – communities often start cafes because there isn’t a cafe or place for people to meet, there are limited healthy eating options or few opportunities for training or work. These are all good reasons in themselves to run a community café.
  • If your café is supporting people to learn or take their first steps in employment, plan in the time and resources to support them. Understanding the intensity of the support, and managing potential impacts on service of working with people who are being supported (for example delays between ordering and being served) is crucial.
  • Community and social enterprises often face a challenge because they are responding to market failures. You are going to have to work hard to offer more profitable cafe than the big chains and you are starting with less track record, working capital, buying power with suppliers, trained staff, and brand awareness. That’s not to say its not doable – just that you need to go into it aware of those issues.
  • Which leads us to the big advantages of community and social enterprises –they are closer to the community and what they want. And they may be able to operate with lower margins because for example of volunteer effort – although its important to be doing this for the right reasons (offering supported volunteering to create a opportunities not to reduce labour costs).

Finally I’ve seen great benefit from new community cafes visiting more established ones to learn from each other – there’s nothing like seeing it for yourself. And you get to sample the cake!

We’re partnering with CafeSunlight to run a community café learning event on August 22nd 10am-4pm at Glasgow’s Townhead Village Hall G4 0PL. To request a spot, email jane.carrel@biglotteryfund.org.uk. Spaces are limited and allocated on a first come, first served basis.

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