Social Justice

The south London café helping people with learning difficulties into work

Cafe Van Gogh is hoping to raise £22,000 for a new kitchen - to train more people with learning difficulties into work.

Cafe Van Gogh

Aleks, one of the participants at Cafe Van Gogh. Image: Cafe Van Gogh

The staff shortage in hospitality is hitting businesses hard – but one south London café thinks it has an innovative solution.

Cafe Van Gogh, in Brixton, trains adults with learning difficulties to work as front of house staff. But it’s now raising money for a new kitchen – in a bid to help a marginalised group into work.

“You can’t, for love nor money, get kitchen porters these days,” says founder Steve Clarke.

“For people with a learning difficulty in my experience, job retention is incredible. Staff sickness is rare. They’re reliable people, easy to train.”

Clarke is aiming to raise £22,000 for the new kitchen – which would allow the café to double its cohort of trainees.

Ehima, another participant at Cafe Van Gogh. Image: Cafe Van Gogh

He hopes that they will then go on to the world of work, filling crucial jobs. Brexit has made life difficult for the hospitality industry – a crisis which has opened up opportunities.

“They can definitely get jobs everywhere. If we can hit the big chains we can make a difference,” Clarke says.

But the task of raising money has been more difficult after the café became embroiled in a dispute with UK Power Networks.

The café has had to spend around £6,000 after it was billed for power installation – work that Clarke says was messed up.

That money was earmarked for the kitchen refurbishment – leaving the café further away from its goal.

Cafe Van Gogh has benefitted from investment from Big Issue Invest, as well as support for the refurbishment.

Alongside helping people into work, Clarke hopes to provide them with a social life outside of work – “a sense of purpose, a reason to get out of bed in the morning”.

And it’s moments where this plays out, as much as job offers, that stick with him. One day, he saw one of his waiters – “a young man with Down’s Syndrome, you would not meet a more upbeat guy” – chatting to another member of staff about going to the gym.

“I thought, my work here is done,” Clarke says. “We want people to lose their disability at the doorstep.”

A spokesperson for UK Power Networks said: “We have been in close contact with the customer to outline the reasons why the work had to be aborted for safety reasons and have already discounted the cost for the additional work that followed as a gesture of goodwill.

“While we cannot give specific detail on individual connections customers, we can confirm we did provide all the necessary information in the letter sent with the initial quotation to ensure a suitable location was chosen.

“Customers are always advised to make use of a local qualified electrician when working with us to ensure their chosen connection location is safe and not situated too close to existing water and gas pipes.”

Cafe Van Gogh’s fundraiser can be found here.

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