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27 Nov 2020

The Umbrella Cafe CIC

Based within a community centre in the heart of Whitstable, by the sea in East Kent, is The Umbrella Cafe. Launched at the end of 2015, the cafe became a community interest company in 2018. As well as a welcoming space for people to enjoy a coffee or lunch, it tackles food provision and social isolation through its social projects.


On a rainy day in October, we spoke to CEO, Joanna Verney.

“Our café provides homecooked meals, hot and cold drinks and cakes baked by us, with vegan and gluten free choices. We have a cosy inside space run by friendly staff and volunteers and a gorgeous community walled garden. We offer the opportunity to have a slice of cake and a cuppa and give back to the community.”

“Our menu is ‘pay what you can’ – everyone is welcome. We want people who are newly struggling, perhaps who have recently lost their jobs to still feel welcome.”

A social mission

“The cafe is a social enterprise which means that we trade as a business but with a social mission. This is to tackle social isolation, food insecurity and food waste in the local area. During lockdown we closed the café and upscaled our social projects. We collaborated with Food Friends, a Whitstable charity, to deliver The Community Dinner Fund project. We worked with churches and schools to gather referrals. We took food round to people through lockdown, adding-in breakfast provision too. That came to an end at the beginning of August. Through this project we supported 172 people, made up of 36 families and 22 smaller households.

“Our aim is to be empowering and supportive, not prescriptive. We recently formed a stakeholder group to bring other projects in the area together. With so much need, it made sense to check that we are complementing and not duplicating each other’s work. It has been great to connect with other charities, community groups and the foodbank. We have been learning from each other and now that we have a better sense of what we all do, can refer people on to additional services where appropriate.

“When we became a CIC it meant we could access funding. We recently heard that we have funding to help us through the next six months of our Social Pantry project which is open twice a week. We get referrals through schools and other sources. Members pay £3 when they come and can shop for free in our store made up of surplus produce. They can come every week unlike a foodbank which generally can only be accessed in emergencies. We stock more than just tins - fresh items including bread, and fruit and vegetables.

“Members can get a week’s worth of shopping for £3 and can also access support services and just spend some social time with other people. It is not just about food. We have a knitting group, offer IT support and give out recipes. It isn’t a new idea but there was nothing like this in our area. The hard part is building up trust. Recently, one of our partner charities brought in a mum with her disabled baby. We showed her round the pantry and gave her a cup of tea. We need to bring people in, in a gentle way and build up trust.”

Resuming trading

“The café reopened at the start of September, much later than everyone else. While we were growing the projects, we couldn't trade at the same time. We are now (in October 2020) open four days a week and customers are coming back. Many are locals (families / local workers / older groups / individuals) but we also get people visiting the town and others who find us on social media. Our trading income is 17% down in comparison with last year. Week-on-week, it varies depending on government’s new guidelines (such as the rule of six) and the weather. Rain definitely dampens our takings!

“Our team is a made up of a small amount of paid staff and volunteers, we have just recruited six new volunteers so we can keep up with everything! We're still giving away meals and working with Fareshare and Neighbourly to access surplus goods. We’ve done all the usual Covid changes within the café but also got to grips with the Track and Trace procedure. People can either scan the QR code or leave their details with us. We follow current GDPR guidelines to ensure this data is kept secure for three weeks.

“This time has been emotionally hard for us all. The cafe is quieter. We all love the job because of the busy-ness of the cafe. I tell the team not to worry that there are fewer people coming in. We need to give customers a good experience, they have chosen us over another cafe. It has been hard for the team as we got used to a certain flow of activity. Most of the team have been with us since the beginning, they are great. They all really care, it is not just a job. We are keeping an eye on each other.”

Looking to the future

“Now we are future proofing. We didn't do any trade pivoting during lockdown because of the project work, so we are looking at this now. We can’t rely on just one sales funnel of people coming in through the door. We are looking at online collections, pop-ups on a Sunday and a subscription service. Going into the winter, we need to iron out mistakes now in time for Christmas.

“The funding will keep us supported until April but we can't rest on our laurels. Pre-lockdown, all of our income came from trading. As a social enterprise, we are meant to be making most of our income from trading, not funding.

“There is a wonderful community in Whitstable. We need to work hard to stay relevant. Everything we do has to be accessible and fun and give people what they want. We want to offer more social experiences. We launched a Halloween treat box (which we will also offer free to the families we support via pay it forwards) and are looking forward to Christmas when we are planning a socially distanced Christmas dinner for our beneficiaries.

“This year has boosted our activity as a social enterprise and has encouraged us to work in even more joined up ways with local partners and to reach more people.”

October 2020

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