Lead feature: Striking the right note

Lead feature: Striking the right note

“Every man is guilty of the all the good he didn’t do,” proclaimed the French philosopher Voltaire, who knew a thing or two about the dark and exploitative side of human nature. But social responsibility, as more enlightened business leaders understand, is not just about being seen to do the right thing in publicity terms, but it can also prove beneficial to your business as one highly successful enterprise has experienced.

“Customers are willing to spend more to reward a company that gives back to society,” notes advertising guru Sir Martin Sorrell. Perhaps “enlightened self-interest” is likely to be a more apt description and one that would find resonance with Rob Robinson, co-founder of Notes, one of London’s most successful micro-chains that runs cafés by day that become bars by night. His company works with Well Grounded, a social enterprise, to provide young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with work experience in the coffee industry. It is a two-year relationship that has not only provided skilful new recruits but a rewarding opportunity for the company’s existing managers to foster and mentor new talent too.

Well Grounded was established by Eve Wagg two years ago to provide young people, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the right skills, training and qualifications to eventually find permanent work in the industry. “She had recently set up Well Grounded and I was keen to take on some of her trainees, both for the social impact we might make and as a means of recruiting great talent,” says Rob Robinson, who is also responsible for handling recruitment and personnel issues at Notes.

The emphasis at Notes, which was recently described by one of its financial backers OakNorth as “a brilliant example of a fast-growing and ambitious business that is coming up with new and innovative ways to stand out in an increasingly competitive sector,” has been on providing essential work experience to Well Grounded’s graduates; those who have successfully passed out from its Speciality Coffee Association (SCA)-accredited 10-week course.

The relationship developed by fortuitous accident. Rob had always been interested in training and skills since his days at university (he wrote his masters degree thesis on UK public policy on skills and how it should be made more akin to that of Germany’s). As Notes has grown, he has been able to place more emphasis on training, but remains aware that the coffee industry lacks a proper broader structure, as well as a failure to deliver well-recognised qualifications. His relationship with Well-Grounded is part of this wider battle for professional recognition.

He also read about a Brighton-based social enterprise scheme that was running barista apprenticeships and got in touch to see if there might be similar opportunities for Notes to contribute to one in London, which is how he met Eve at Well Grounded. Taking raw recruits, some of them from homeless backgrounds, into polished enterprises such as Notes might appear to some to be something of a high-risk strategy; but experience has generally proven otherwise, with many of those coming on work experience demonstrating a strong propensity to deliver the level of excellent customer service required.

“I know from my own experience that candidates can reach the hospitality industry through different routes – falling into it is no barrier to being excellent and committed, so I’m open to meeting people with limited experience but a desire to learn,” he adds.“Also, often those recruits who start out and develop quickly from a low level of experience prove to be the most loyal

Rasha, a refugee from Yemen forced to fell from the country’s brutal civil war, appears to embody the successful outcomes that entrepreneurs such as Rob require. She gained valuable work experience at Notes before obtaining an internship at Origin in Rwanda. She is now a quality intern at Falcon Speciality Coffee, the ethical green bean coffee buyer. Her initial involvement with Well Grounded and Notes crucially enabled her to get her foot on a proper career ladder.

“It is one of the best things that ever happened to me,” says Rasha, whose big ambition is to one day source coffee directly from Yemen to support women in her country of origin. “I don’t know what I would have done without it – this has changed my life.”

Recruitment can be a costly and sometimes difficult process. It’s been reported that the biggest challenge facing British businesses is the challenge of recruiting skilled labour, something which is likely to worsen as high employment combined with falls in the value of the pound and uncertainty over the future of European Union nationals in the UK begin to exert a greater toll.

But so far recruitment in the coffee sector has not hit the crisis levels experienced in other sectors. “There has been a drop off in applications since Brexit, but our retention rates are good, so we haven’t felt the impact yet,” says Rob.

As the company continues to expand, opening three new London branches in the past year alone, it continues to hire new staff, a few of whom have come via the Well Grounded route. While technical competence is important, it is even more crucial that any recruit possesses the ability to deliver the high standards of customer service required by Notes.

“We can train people on the technical skills of coffee, but the more difficult thing to instil is the customer service side,” says Rob. “I want people who love coming to work to serve people, to interact, to be themselves while delivering a great customer experience.”

That is one of the key requirements that Well Grounded strives to deliver. Much of its training course focuses on ensuring work readiness and strong customer focus among its graduates. It provides mentoring and troubleshooting and ongoing support, which can be crucial – particularly for those who have come from tougher more challenging backgrounds.

Many of those who join the training programme are referred by Street League, a charity that works with disadvantaged young people, some of whom initially were living rough on the streets. The charity organises football, fitness classes and dancing as a means of engaging homeless youngsters aged between 16 and 24 with a view to helping them get into education, training or employment. “We use fitness and dancing as a hook to engage people living rough on the streets on to our programmes,” explains Lindsey MacDonald, director of strategy and impact for Street League.

It’s the first step in being able to work with other agencies to find accommodation for them, but as just as importantly a sense of belonging and purpose. Training, education and, ultimately, work is the end goal, which is why the charity also runs its own preliminary 10-week programme to help prepare them for that and ensure the very best outcome. “We are a very data-driven organisation and I believe we are the first charity to launch an online data impact about what we are doing on a live basis,” says Lindsey.

Last year alone the charity, which now works in London as well as 13 other UK cities, engaged more than 2,400 young people on to its various programmes. Some 1,709 of them are now in employment, education or training. However, 87 young people disengaged from the programme, which may have been due to a variety of problems, such as ongoing mental health issues, pregnancy, or that they simply hadn’t joined the right channel for them.

Street League, like Well Grounded, is also keen to talk to employers in the hospitality industry who may be willing to provide work experience or even just the ability to use computers and Wi-Fi for free to write job applications. It is an association that works in tandem with the 10-week training programmes they also operate.

“It is incredibly important that we give young people the right opportunities, which is why we ask café owners to consider giving young people in deprived circumstances an opportunity to use their Wi-Fi and computer facilities to seek jobs,” says Lindsey.

Supplying work experience, even for a day or two, is also vital: “You can’t possibly underestimate the role of good work experience. Over half the young people we work with have no such experience when they first join us. We do not want to refer them to Well Grounded until they have a firm idea beforehand about what is likely to be involved or expected of them,” she says.

For the time being at least, the coffee industry continues on its buoyant trajectory, but without a continual flow of migrant labour from mainland Europe and elsewhere it may eventually struggle. An opportunity to bring in new lifeblood from less obvious areas, such as young people from deprived and troubled backgrounds, offers, as Rob says, “part of the solution” to those longer-term issues.

It is about enlightened self-interest: sometimes doing good is not just about doing the right thing, even when no-one is watching. It can also be good for business in more ways than one.