Sophia is a single mother living in London and she’s just opened a community café during lockdown. The opening of Carmen’s Family Coffee House in Poplar, East London is the culmination of her ambition to create a family orientated coffee shop rooted in the local community that provides a safe and welcoming space for parents.

The inspiration behind opening the shop was based on Sophia’s own experiences following the birth of her daughter whose name, shared with Sophia’s own mother, gives the shop its name. She wanted to do something about the isolation she felt as a young mother and to create a place where parents would feel welcome and part of the community.

“The real reason that I set it up was to get people out of their houses in the area and to have a different sort of setting to go to. For me, I went through a point when I had Carmen where I was isolated in the house too scared to go out, all the local places that I’d go to were so uninviting and unwelcoming – what’s the point in going out? That’s where it came from.”

Sophia had spent much of her life acting as her mother’s carer and she passed away around the same time as baby Carmen was born. The loss of her mum was a big motivating factor in taking the big leap into the unknown that was starting up a new business, and the café is a tribute to her memory.

Back in 2018, Sophia had the aspirations and vision to create a community coffee shop but her dream would not have become a reality were it not for the support and training offered by one social enterprise.

Well Grounded runs a series of Speciality Coffee Training Academies whose mission is to support adults at risk of long term unemployment into jobs in the specialty coffee industry  – linking people looking for work with an industry looking for talent.

Since opening in 2016 it has supported over 200 people to find work in the coffee industry, many of whom are from marginalised groups including people who have experienced homelessness, ex-offenders, refugees and individuals who have suffered from long-term unemployment. Interestingly, unlike other social enterprises working within the coffee sector, it does not operate as a retailer, rather it focuses its efforts on creating employment opportunities and offering holistic support for its trainees. This goes beyond just technical training to include regular mentorship, mock-interviews, employability support and job matching services.

Sophia took part in a 12-week speciality coffee training programme and work placement with Well Grounded after seeing a poster advertising their programmes in her local community centre. The training helped her gain technical barista skills and confidence to make her vision a reality. Through the programme she took part in a work placement at Notes Coffee Shop in Canary Wharf, where she was offered a job. She was introduced to Notes co-founder, Rob Robinson, who has acted as a mentor figure, helping with the development of Carmen’s Family Coffee House.

Commenting on the importance of her time with Well Grounded, Sophia said:

“Well Grounded really elevated me to another level that probably would have taken me years to get to….I’m so grateful to Well Grounded because I don’t think I would have had the guts to have gone further if it wasn’t for the course.”

Sophia at Carmens Family Coffee House SE Stories social enterprise uk
Sophie and Carman at Carmen’s Family Coffee House

Well Grounded is dedicated to breaking down barriers to the world of work and the state of the post-Covid economy will mean that its work, and that of other social enterprises like it, will never be more needed. In October last year the unemployment rate hit 4.9% , people have seen a reduction in pay and/or hours and the impact of the pandemic has hit the poorest the hardest. We’re also facing a crisis of unemployment amongst younger workers, with nearly half of the total number of people who’ve lost their jobs being under 34 and there being 260,000 less young people in work since the beginning of the pandemic.

In bigger cities there has been much talk of the closure of businesses dependent on the commuter population, including the numerous high-street coffee chains which help fuel the urban workforce. Demand for coffee however is still high with the CBI estimating that the coffee market is expected to grow at an annual rate of around 5.5% up to 2025 and once lockdown’s ease, it is likely that coffee shops will see high levels of footfall. Coffee shops are also fairing much better outside of the big urban centres with people redirecting their spend to their local shops.

The pandemic has undoubtedly had a big impact on Well Grounded who had to change the way they worked overnight, adapting to keep on supporting trainees in whatever way they could. In mid-June they launched a successful crowdfunding campaign which led to the creation of a virtual training platform to support and connect Graduates. Following successfully accessing COVID-19 relief funds they also invested in further services for their trainees including mental health check-ins, well-being sessions, financial planning support, continued employment support and the provision of food relief packages. When restrictions initially eased in our stop-start series of lockdowns, Well Grounded managed to support a remarkable 47 people into work or education.

As for Sophia, pandemic restrictions have meant that, whilst still open, Carmen’s has had to limit itself to selling takeaway coffee. However, both she and Well Grounded are confident that the future is set to be much brighter. Sophia is looking forward to Carmen’s being the family friendly community hub it is meant to be with its buggy park, play area, toy store, and baby-friendly menu and Well Grounded is coming out of the pandemic confident in its ability to adapt and ready to continue its mission of supporting some of the most vulnerable find decent work.

Next year Well Grounded will train over 200 individuals at their training Academies in London and continue to provide long term professional development and employment support to their growing network of Graduates. In their effort to continue supporting those most in need, Well Grounded has just launched a series of fun, interactive, virtual team building coffee workshops. All classes are run via Zoom by their Graduates, with every penny going towards their mission. Find out more here.