I suppose seeing that I haven’t posted for a long time, I really ought to update you on how the Whipped & Baked bakery is doing. To those new to this blog, sometime around four months ago, I, together with my husband a.k.a. Slaveboy refitted a shop and opened a bakery/coffee shop on little more than £5000. We didn’t want the constraints of a bank loan or the gamble of investing large sums of money into it so decided to be inventive. Seeing that I don’t plan to be posting about it just this very minute, you are very welcome to have a peek at the bakery here. While you’re there, consider liking our Facebook page, it’s our only form of advertising, apart from Twitter.
But let’s talk about marbles.
These marbles do a lot in the bakery. It initiates interest and intrigued, mostly spurred on by young children who probably have never seen traditional glass marbles that up close (they’re Slaveboy’s from when he was a little boy and the jar was from when the bakery was a family run sweet shop just after World War 2). They visualise random acts of kindness from our customers who pay a £1 to see two marbles put into the jar. They each represent a cup of coffee for the homeless of Chichester.
Just around a week before we were to open the bakery, a friend forwarded on Facebook a link on a scheme called suspended coffee. The gist of it is easily conveyed. It started in Naples, gained momentum in the States and Whipped & Baked was the first establishment in West Sussex, England to have adopted and adapted the scheme. Where it originated in Naples, customers who came in to a coffee shop would pay for an extra coffee which is then suspended for any homeless individual who might wander into the coffee shop in need of a hot beverage. Milk bottle caps used to represent the suspended coffee drinks and as long as there were milk bottle caps visible in a container on the counter, any homeless individual was able to come in and request for a coffee.
We contacted the local homeless charity, StonePillow about our plan to start the scheme and since then, we have received their endorsement. We avoided the complications of over-thinking the scenario – some people suggested that coffee wasn’t a great thing to be feeding homeless people who are potentially sub-optimally nourished, some people suggested that we might not want the likes of homeless people entering our establishment and deterring paying customers, some people suggested that if we wanted to give away free coffees, why not just do it, rather than make a show and tell of it.
We were quick to brush off all these as moot points. They might be sub-optimally nourished but let’s not go all First Class Woes on this and ponder upon whether they should be fed lentil soup instead – if you were homeless and potentially penniless and hungry, a coffee is far better than nothing.
And deterring paying customers by having homeless people come in getting their cup of paid for coffee (it’s not free when it’s been paid by someone)? Meh. We don’t want paying customers like that. That decision making didn’t require a rocket science degree.
And I will make a show and tell of it. I’ve met plenty of Chichester residents who would declare that this great city does not have a problem with homelessness. They were not so quick to retort when informed that the StonePillow day centre can sometimes see up to 50 homeless individuals come through their door in a day. We are comfortable with the concept of being charitable when it doesn’t really involve us engaging directly with the recipient of our charity. A bit like donating £5 a month to sponsor a chimpanzee or £7 to go towards installing a clean water standpipe for some village in Africa. It’s a clean, sterile and detached charitable act. The act is more about your feelgood factor than it actually is about the recipient of the donation. And this is where the suspended coffee scheme is different. It’s not fundraising, money is not being collected for the sake of collecting money which then gets pushed through channels where stakeholders and administrations decide where the money should go to, once the costs of admin, stationery, advertising etc have been recouped. Instead, this scheme is direct action. On a daily basis, in our bakery, marbles go into the jar donated by our customers and they come out of the jar as suspended coffees are claimed by homeless individuals.
The lads (I say lads because in general, they tend to be men although there are a few women regulars too) come in pretty much every day, between 7-15 of them and most of them are fond of coffee, and also hot chocolate. Almost all of them have sugar and more likely than not, it would be in excess of four teaspoons worth per drink. They’ve become quite chatty, they know us on first name basis and I know a few by name too. We talk about how the coffee machine works, organic food, cinder toffee making, tattoos and 99% of the time our paying customers don’t even know that they’re homeless. In fact, we have had people pass comments that we didn’t seem to be getting any uptake with the suspended coffee only to be very surprised when we pointed out to them that the last group of people who left the shop were all homeless.
The old fashioned assumption that this marginalised section of the society would be unruly/dirty/unkempt/different is still rife. Occasionally, a couple of the lads would turn up looking a bit worse for wear, but so would you if you were sleeping rough on damp ground during an unanticipated nighttime downpour.
The biggest wake up call for me, which felt like a slap in the face with a wet sock, and even more shocking because I thought I was being ever so sensitive and conscientious by doing this, was when one of the lads knocked on our door after we’re closed asking if their friend can still get a cup of coffee. Not because he was thirsty but because he was on medication and there was simply no water to be found anywhere in the town centre. The toilets were closed, and even if they were open, the water was not fit for drinking. There’s no standpipe for water accessible. The ironic thing is, we have shops on the High Street putting out bowls of water for thirsty dogs.
This scheme of ours have generated a lot of interest and I’m really pleased about this. I’ve been invited by the local radio station to talk about it, the local newspaper have written a feature about it and even a columnist have commended us for starting this scheme.
However, there is room for improvement. Other businesses could come on board, and adapt the scheme to make it work within their own business models. If you’re a sandwich shop, then the suspended coffee could be a basic sandwich. If you’re a fruitmonger, it could be a banana. The list is endless.
When I decided that we were doing this scheme, Slaveboy’s was sceptical but he went with it. Now, he is the biggest advocate. He educates the customers and their children who enquire about the marbles. He engages in a discussion about it with those who find it intellectually intriguing. He rationalises with the sceptics who are looking for the catch or how we are financially profiting from this which obviously we aren’t.
This scheme is not about coffee or charity. It’s about random acts of kindness. It’s about doing something which you know will directly benefit another person. There’s no free pens, or cute photos of fluffy animals or snapshots of dusky skinned little girls with dirt stained faces and oversized tee shirts but that cup of suspended coffee could make the difference between a homeless person making it through a cold winter night outdoors, not just for the warmth it gives, but the hope it represents.