Creating delicious vegan dishes, the Warehouse Café is a worker co-op situated in the Friends of the Earth Building in Birmingham. The café has been in existence for 35 years. And in early 2019, the current co-operative owners succeeded in their bid to take on the business.
Their bid was born of a passion to create tasty, affordable vegan food – and provide a community space for talks, education and entertainment. “People in the community love our space,” says co‑op member Emmanuel Blondel.
“We’ve hosted all kinds of events, from workshops on tech security to clothes repair, history, physics and evolutionary biology. And we’ve had loads of artists perform here – from hip-hop to acoustic sets and poetry.”
The co-op received support from the Hive when it was initially set up. And after almost a year of working hard to make it a success, the business had reached a milestone in early 2020. “In February, we finally hit our target of being financially stable – up until that point, it had been a challenge to make sure the business could work,” Emmanuel says.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and everything changed. “We were aware of the threat of the virus long before others – because a lot of disabled people use our space, so we shut down the Café in early March before the government lockdown.” That’s when they once again turned to the Hive for support.
“He also pointed us in the direction of a £10,000 local government grant, which we got. That helped us top up furloughed wages and support our colleagues who were struggling.”
Luckily, the co-op was able to furlough all of its 10 members. This meant that when it was approached by a local grass roots organisation to help out with a solidarity kitchen, it was able to provide facilities and volunteer chefs to help feed hundreds of people in need.
“Co-operative Birmingham came to us with the idea. They raised £12,000 via crowd funding and local people setting up direct debits,” says Emmanuel. With the funds, they’ve been able to buy food and pay for the kitchen overheads to feed 100-200 people a day throughout lockdown.
When lockdown eased and government rules began to allow partial furlough, things began to change at the Warehouse Café. They kept the solidarity kitchen going, alongside offering take away and delivery meals to customers a few days a week. And once again, Phil’s support via the Hive was vital in exploring potential new business models.
“He helped us look at our strengths and weaknesses and how we solve problems. He got us thinking about different ways to diversify the business. We’ve been exploring the idea of holding private supper clubs with affordable meals, social distancing and guest speakers,” says Emmanuel.
“Thanks to the Hive’s support, we’ve been able to sustain our members; help hundreds of people in need and come up with solutions to ensure the continuity of a co-op we’ve worked hard to make a success.”