So You Want to Start a Church Café?


Apologies in advance for a long post today.  It is the result of a throw away comment I made (and I immediately regretted) when sharing at a conference over the weekend. When sharing about my new role I said;

“Please don’t talk to me if you want to set up a café”.

I was joking of course; and immediately said so.

Those who know me better would probably argue that there is some truth in my “joke” which stems from my disappointment when Churches and agencies desire to duplicate rather than create. In fact over my short 2 months in this role I have spoken to no less than TEN Churches who either have, are in the process of establishing, or who are desiring to establish café programs/ministries.

NONE THE LESS I also appreciate the creative potential of cafés within the café-obsessed Australian culture. I have personally been involved in the business development of two social enterprise cafes and have visited many others.

For this reason it seemed to timely to revisit an earlier post on the potential and possibilities of social enterprise cafes as a part of Church ministries. I want to do this by taking a look at some of the common forms that Church cafés take and the strengths and challenges that each present.

Most of the cafés run by Churches and agencies that I have come into contact with have fallen roughly into one or a number of the following 3 models:

The volunteer run community space

These cafés provide an inexpensive café experience either for low income people or more generally a link between the community at large and the Church community. They provide a friendly, relaxed place for the community to meet and are often set up by Churches in areas where limited other such places are available or affordable. Often they partner “Conversation Café” models or similar opportunities to extend hospitality and facilitate conversations so that those previously socially isolated can participate in the café as a first connection point with a new community.

The strength of this model from a community development framework is that it provides what community building experts call a “third space”, particularly for those previously isolate from other such spaces. Ray Oldenburg in his influential book The Great Good Place argues that communities need “third spaces” in order to establish true society, democracy, creativity and engagement with one another. This café model fulfils this role when it provides:

  • Inexpensive food and drink
  • High accessibility: in walkable proximate for many
  • A place encouraging “regulars” – those who habitually congregate there
  • An intentionally welcoming and comfortable environment
  • Intention work to develop both new friends and old.

The challenge of this model is after the initial spark of enthusiasm for creating this project has rubbed off it is often quite a challenge to staff this kind of café. As the community begins to get used to the café the work increases and often volunteers get worn out. Volunteers are often older and running a café requires them to be on their feet for long periods of time. Rostering, ordering and troubleshooting take a lot of effort and are often also performed by a less experienced, low-paid or volunteer co-ordinator. Remember that the average commercial café is staffed by young paid staff (with lots of energy) and co-ordinated by full time salaried managers; often with qualifications and experience in business. It should therefore not be a surprise if we are struggling to keep pace with this standard in terms of staffing, speed and quality (even if not prepared by chefs most meals in franchised cafes are at least initially designed by them).

The training and experience café

Increasing in popularity is this second model: either by design or because, in the recruiting for volunteers for the previous model, co-ordinators are discovering that many volunteers approaching them are coming from Centrelink or Job Network Providers (JSAs). These cafes may purposely target groups of people struggling to find pathways into the workforce- the long term unemployed, people newly arrived to Australia, or other people groups who may experience disadvantage entering the workforce. Buddy or mentoring programs (whether formal or informal) are often coupled with this model.

The strength of this model is obviously in its capacity to creatively and relationally meet a community need in a manner that is empowering of the individual experiencing disadvantage. Additional advantage can be added to this model when it is combined with auspiced training from TAFE (or another such institution) and strong relationships with commercial cafes who can take on these trained up volunteers if and when they have completed their training/ proven themselves reliable of your recommendation. This model can also attract funding as a social service and if marketed well this work can encourage greater community buy-in and participation.

The challenge of this model is primarily linked to the fact that those experiencing disadvantage due to long term or generation unemployment/disadvantage often have not had the opportunity to learn the disciplines that make for productive and high-functioning volunteers/learners. This creates significantly more work for the volunteer co-ordinator. These cafés require a co-ordinator, therefore, that does not only have high organisational skills but also very high interpersonal skills and experience working with disadvantaged groups. It is often highly challenging to find a volunteer or someone on a lower wage to staff this demanding role.  Volunteers/learners in this model participate for shorter periods of time and the higher turnover of volunteers require more constant work on the team culture and more time spent on volunteer/learner recruitment.

The fundraising initiative

The third model I have seen is a purely commercial venture that generates funds towards another socially motivated cause just as a second-hand clothing store might. In fact I have seen a number of these ventures (including one of my personal favourites in Adelaide) which couple a small scale café and second hand clothing or second hand bookstore. With no additional social component these cafes are able to run as pure business ventures.

The strength of this model is that, while the previous models try to balance their books while keeping prices down and dealing with complex issues such as volunteer management (sometimes an impossible task), this model is free to pursue a purely commercial interest while generating funds towards pure mission/social work. Keeping business and community development separate certainly has its merits. Staffing is easier because you are only recruiting for business acumen and not also community development understanding.

The challenges of this model are also commercial. Often the individuals wanting to seed this venture are not business minded but socially minded. A qualified business manager really does need to be engaged to ensure the venture maintains long-term viability. As I mentioned earlier; all these ventures are competing with commercial cafés whose managers are trained in business and motivated by the personal benefit of profit (which does not exist in this model). The space we use is also a significant consideration- I would seriously recommend considering finding an external commercial space. Second hand clothing shops are increasingly required to pay commercial council rates even when situated on Church property. Likewise a proposed commercial café venture would have to be carefully worked through with a local council development team. It would be unfair to local café owners for you to benefit from lower taxes, rates and rent while making a profit at their expense even if that profit is directed towards a worthy cause. The previous non-commercial models are often required to charge half of retail price for their goods in order to avoid income tax, commercial rates etc but as a commercial venture you will not be able to sustain this costing if you intend to pay staff and commercial overheads.

While cafés as social enterprises have incredible potential they can also represent significantly hard work. They can also represent a reliance on a program rather than a purpose. For this reason I will write a follow up post addressing how similar ends can be worked towards through means other than a café.

If you would like to talk through a café venture (either evaluating a current program or looking at establishing a new initiative) please feel free to contact me. In contrast to my throw-away comment on the weekend- I would very much like to speak with you.

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