The Cafe Option


Photo: one of our trainees practices their skills

I am often disinclined towards popular programs.  You wouldn’t know it because MarionLIFE (where I work) has both a Community Garden AND a Community Cafe which are to the 2000-2010’s what Op-shops were to previous decades.  If you want to be a Church who is serious about engaging with their local community you (apparently) must have one or both of these!

We inherited the cafe and the garden is another story that many of you who have heard me speak will already be familiar with (I’m sure I’ll share it here soon). Suffice to say that neither of these programs developed out of our desire to deliver them but from a community drive to use them to meet their own felt need.

Now I do not for one minute think either of these programmatic approaches provides the silver bullet and I’m concerned that sometimes they are used as a lazy option for Churches who are ill-equipped, unaware or frightened of healthy community consultation.

They are also bloody hard work (just ask our cafe co-ordinator!)

HOWEVER I have seen a number of really great models recently that I wanted to share with you.


MarionLIFE runs a small cafe operation (Side Gate Cafe) catering lunches for up to 150 people a day 3 days a week.  We use the cafe as a training space for individuals who are experiencing long-term unemployed or have a disability with a particular focus on indigenous people.  A 12 week mentoring program allows these individuals to receive one-on-one support in setting goals and achieving them.  Individuals can receive accredited certification in barrister work, safe food handling etc.  If they prove themselves a reliable worker MarionLIFE have good relationships with a number of cafes which are willing to take on those who have been through this program.

The harsh reality of it is that many of those participating in this program have such chaotic lives that few of them are able to make this transition easily after 12 weeks or at all (they are welcome to stay on at the cafe for as long as they need).  For those who do transisition into employment, however, this is truly a life changing, world altering experience.


During a recent trip to Melbourne with a colleague from Mission Australia I was treated to a dinner experience at Charcoal Lane: Charcoal Lane enables Aboriginal and disadvantaged young people to gain experience in a supported, real work environment as part of an integrated program which includes personal skills development and accredited education in hospitality. I was super impressed with this projects capacity to marry solid business principles (it is run as a successful business by managers seconded from a successful hotel chain in Melbourne) and social capital.  It is very rare (in my experience) to see this kind of marriage of financial sustainability and social development work long term.  (This is Community Design/Design for Social Innovation at its heart).


I also had a very pleasant experience at Kinfolk Cafe in Melbourne which uses a cafe as a fundraising project without additional social development aims but was none the less very interesting and staffed by some lovely volunteers who would have looked out of place in most Church run cafe projects.

I am very interest in this kind of creative approach to Social Design and wish I saw more of it.

What creative approaches have you explored?  (…oh and can you invite me to see them?)

I love the ingenuity of doing something very different from what everyone else is doing.  I love the fresh perspective on using a communities strength (in this case the Australian love of going-out to eat) to meet a felt community need.  I love the idea that we should prototype- that we should throw crazy solutions at complex problems- that the more varied the solutions we try the more likely one will stick!

If the idea of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results then I see a great deal of sanity in these creative approaches.

What creative solutions have you seen for seemingly insolvable problems?

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