Making positive change happen: in conversation with Long Street Coffee

Making positive change happen: in conversation with Long Street Coffee

Jane and Francois started Long Street Coffee, a social enterprise cafe, in June 2015 after successfully crowdfunding the business. Both have many years of hospitality experience, and a strong sense to support refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights having volunteered in the refugee community before opening the cafe.

Long Street Coffee provides young refugees and asylum seekers with employment opportunities so they can go on to find work in the industry after a six month paid traineeship. Long Street Coffee is about community, sharing knowledge and skills, drinking coffee for long hours, connecting with people, and perhaps playing some basketball with newfound friends.

The cafe is named after a famous street in Cape Town, South Africa. A friend, originally from Cape Town, describes Long Street as a multicultural, quirky place, a street with many faces, filled with creativity. Jane and Francois hope the cafe will have a similar energy, inviting people to hang out, get to know the refugees making their coffee, and drop any prejudices and stereotypes about so-called “boat people”.

Being a business that’s less than a year old the couple behind it has learnt a lot already, and yet has so many more growth steps to experience. It’s the perfect startup to follow along to learn about building a business, finding support, and witness beautiful change happening at the same time.
I talked to Jane about the importance of close connections, running a business as a woman, and not backing down.

Have you always wanted to run your own business?

Francois and I never really thought about running a business. We are first and foremost asylum seeker and refugee rights advocates. I love running this business, but we wouldn’t be running just a conventional business. Being able to employ asylum seekers and refugees is a form of activism for us.

I was born in Australia and grew up in a working class family. The dignity that comes with employment is something that my parents have taught me from a young age, and I think it is really difficult to build a life for yourself if you don’t have a job. I try to imagine what it’s like for people being forced to leave their home and having to build a new life - it would be very difficult handing out your resume and having people discriminate against you because your English isn’t perfect, or because of the colour of your skin. People just aren’t really willing to give you a go.

What do you think are some steps that entrepreneurs, freelancers, and refugees can take to overcome the resistance they encounter, and push through those obstacles?

In our case it’s definitely been about finding the right people, starting to build a community, and keeping those people close to us. We have a significant network of people who support us, right from the beginning we had a lot of people who devoted their time, energy, and skills to making it work. The reason I say keep those people close is because you’ll encounter a lot of people saying “well, good luck, but you don’t have enough money”, or “you don’t have enough experience”. I had pitched this idea to numerous boards and alike and faced a lot of rejection. People have said no more than they’ve said yes. If you want to keep going and see your dream become reality, you need to keep the people who are supporting you close to you, and take from their energy, enthusiasm, and belief.

How important do you think traits like confidence, resilience, and determination are for both refugees and entrepreneurs?

Hugely important, particularly as a woman running a business. People are trying to undermine you constantly, you encounter a lot of opposition. But you get more resilient. And it’s a lot easier having a partner. I have so much respect for women running a business on their own. I think at some point you let go in a sense and learn to not waste energy on people you can’t convince. It’s really important when you ask people for their time, their money, or their support, to make it clear from the outset that you will go ahead and do it with or without their support.

Who were some of your first customers and supporters?

Friends and family obviously thought it was a great idea, they built this with us from the very start. My brother came up every single weekend for about eight months to help us build the cafe. I also met some women who are part of a group called Make Sense. Their organisation is aimed at helping social entrepreneurs overcome their challenges to get an enterprise up and running, and they were a really important part of how we managed to get started. We kind of failed in NSW where we originally wanted to set it up and came back to Melbourne with nothing at the beginning of 2014. I met these women, told them my idea, and we met weekly over the course of about six months to see what the challenges were. Oftentimes it was quite obvious, a lack of money. They introduced me to other people, ran workshops, and got a lot of other people involved. We started networking that way, and it’s how we got everything from the stone donated, to getting an architect, a photographer, a graphic designer. They all worked for free essentially and were really pivotal in our overall success. 

When running a business you go through ups and downs. You’ve constantly got to balance doing what you love with solving issues and problems that you come across. How do you find that balance?

What I find the hardest to balance is ensuring that we are meeting both our social objectives and our financial responsibilities. We have to make sure that the business is financially sustainable and that means being able to cover the extra financial costs that are involved with training people who aren’t work ready. Ideally, I’d like to have their positions partly funded in order to help us with this. It is frustrating at times, as we’re first and foremost asylum seeker and refugee rights advocates, but I spend a huge amount of my time and energy trying to balance money in a way that will enable us to not only continue our employment program, but expand it.

We also have a lot of interest from hospitality professionals, from people who make coffee, and from people who have really good front-of-house service skills, wanting to get involved and volunteer their time. It’s a lot of work having to coordinate volunteers, but right from the start we had a huge amount of interest.

What were the very first challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?

Before we opened we had a coffee machine, we had a coffee supplier, we knew how to make coffee, we had great connections with the refugee community, and all we wanted to do was run a pop-up cafe. It was hard to sell people the idea, we couldn’t even run a pop-up at festivals because we had no trading history. The big breakthrough was St Jerome’s Laneway Festival. I worked for Jerome at the time, and even though we had never traded, he let me run a little pop-up cafe at the festival, which was huge. We employed two refugees that day.

How important do you think it is to test an idea before you fully go into business?

I don’t really think you always need to, it depends on the individual circumstance. Whilst we did our market research before deciding on the location, essentially we threw ourselves into it. We had enough experience working in cafes, and we had seen first-hand discrimination against people from different backgrounds. We had spent time volunteering with refugees to feel confident training. We did run a bit of a pilot programme in the form of the pop-up café. This was necessary in order to raise the finance for the start-up, but from the outset we had a great deal of confidence in the idea itself and in our ability to pull it off.

How do you distribute work between Francois and yourself?

Our skill sets are very different, but they complement one another beautifully. Francois is very patient, he’s a good teacher. He can actually explain complicated things in a very simple way, so he does the majority of the training, particularly with coffee. I run through more front-of-house stuff and do most of the administration and advocacy.

What advice can you share on staying motivated, keeping up self-discipline, getting work done, and being productive?

Coffee (laughs). Coffee helps. And wake up early. Some Mondays when we have the day off I sleep in, and some Mondays I get up at five and use the time I have to get all the other things done I haven’t been able to do during the week. It’s about finding what you’re passionate about and you’ll be motivated. I think most people can work 80 hours on something (even though I wouldn’t advise that!), if you really love what you’re doing and don’t consider it work. There is also work-life balance though, and you don’t want to give too much of yourself so that you start resenting what you’ve created.

What gets you out of bed in the morning? And what do you do on those days where you really don’t feel like working?

The best thing about this business is that I have a sense of purpose. I know that if I don’t wake up, the people we employ who love coming here won’t be able to come here. So when I’m tired and a bit fed up I just look at our trainees and how happy they are to be here and what it means to them. They tell us all the time how much they love working here and how happy they are to have this opportunity. Working with them is a very tangible and constant reminder that what we’re doing is needed. It’s wonderful and it makes it worth it. You take people who have experienced really nothing but rejection in terms of employment since they’ve been in Australia, and you enable them to work part-time in an environment where they feel welcome and well-supported in learning new skills, and you see the change happen. It’s a really beautiful thing to witness.

What kind of change do you see happen?

Perhaps most obviously, is the acquisition of new skills. They go from not wanting to go near the coffee machine, because it can be quite daunting at first, to actually wanting to make coffee all the time. There’s that, but there’s also the remarkable thing of seeing them gain self-confidence. For example, one of our staff members had spent a significant time in detention and was not long out when he began working with us. People who taught him in detention and provided him with vital support during that time, would often come in to the cafe and have breakfast and coffee - and he’s here making their coffee. He was so proud to be in that position. Improved self-confidence is definitely the biggest change we witness.

What kind of jobs have you helped them get after their training at Long Street Coffee? What have some of the refugees or asylum seekers gone on to do?

We’ve only worked with four people so far since we’ve been open, two of whom we work with currently. One of the trainees we worked with from the start didn’t need any help finding employment. He put this experience on his resume, put me down as a reference, and went out looking for a job. He now works with a catering company.  

I’m regularly approached by other businesses who want to take on good baristas, but our guys aren’t really ready for that at the moment. Ideally we would love for it to be a smooth transition, for them to finish here after three to six months and then move on to one of those other small businesses. However, the process to get them to that stage has proven to be a little more complex than what I originally imagined. The short answer is - watch this space. We have a few ideas.

What are some of your big, long-term goals? What kind of change are you hoping to see within society?

We really want to take on more people. We’ll probably revise the programme we have at the moment, get more hospitality professionals involved, and have some kind of volunteer programme. That’s the hopefully not too long-term goal.

Customers have approached me and revealed that this café has changed their opinion on people seeking asylum. I’m really optimistic about the power and potential of Long Street to change minds. I would love to continue to advocate in a bigger way. I’m not sure how yet, but the potential is definitely there.

Thanks Jane!
You can support Long Street Coffee by dropping in for a freshly made coffee and some delicious food if you’re in Melbourne, by spreading the word, or simply carry on the positive change and share some of your knowledge with people keen to learn.

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