Is this the best-priced coffee in Ipswich?
PUBLISHED: 11:00 01 May 2019 | UPDATED: 11:02 01 May 2019
Community centre cafe must be doing something right - it's just won an award.
At noon, each Wednesday, the age-old bells of St Lawrence, in Ipswich, ring out.
As well as a mark of the town's rich heritage, it also acts as a lunch bell for people who have their midday meal at the popular St Lawrence Centre café.
Today the church is a welcoming venue with maybe the best value coffee in town - a mug of standard coffee for under £2. Moreover it offers award-winning scones (big enough to share!), friendly staff, proper lunches (Tuesday's special was a crowd-pleasing beef stew and dumplings for £5.95) and wi-fi.
Moreover, St Lawrence has this week been awarded Community Café of the Year, Ipswich, in the 3rd annual UK Enterprise Awards.
It is one of the social enterprises run by Realise Futures, which offers employment and opportunities to adults with disabilities or those that are disadvantaged.
This time last year, the business was foundering but a determined re-jig to make it more commercially viable has seen footfall has gone up by around seven per cent in the last few months.
Davey, who is about to become one of the café's scone tutors, has been with Realise Futures for nine years.
“I started in packing at Whitehouse and decided I needed a challenge so I moved on to making cakes there before coming to the café, eight months ago.”
Davey enjoys being a part of the team. “Everyone is so...” he fastens on the right word... “lovable.”
“I'm here twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“Though it was a bit daunting at first, I'm starting to feel in my comfort zone. I will be teaching other people to make scones and that will help me gain confidence.” He goes back to preparing lunch.
I take Steve away from the counter. He too has been with the enterprise for a number of years. “I was 13 or 14 years at Whitehouse, working there as a packer, floor supervisor and training people up, and one day I decided to have a change of career. I have been here (at the café) nearly two years now.
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“We are a really good team − we all understand each other and we all help each other.”
“One chap phoned from Cambridge to find out when the bells would be ringing − I told him they ring on Wednesday, about midday. It's acts like a lunch bell,” says Steve with a smile.
Jane Sutton is business systems director for Realise Futures and community café manager is Caron Mexome.
“Our ethos at Realise Futures is to support people with disabilities into employment. We pay people here the living wage regardless of disability, says Jane.”
The company's headquarters at Whitehouse, in Ipswich, offers well-being placements - for which Realise Futures is paid. These placements provide work skills training for individuals who, it is hoped, will then move into employment.
The other enterprises are the café; Growing Places, at Claydon; wholefood shop Poppy's Pantry at Melton; eco-furniture and Fulfilment services at Whitehouse, in Ipswich; and Nowton Park plant nursery, at Bury St Edmunds.
The work helps people gain skills and confidence and is a great addition to CVs to support progression into further employment or learning.
“We weren't making a profit at St Lawrence and there was a time it might have closed. It was in its last year,” says Jane. I look around at the 40 or more people enjoying their morning coffee and cake. It would be a blow if this great place closed.
But the café, with Caron at the helm, has turned itself around which is great news for customers and staff. Caron, who trained as a chef, has spent a good many years working within the UK's burgeoning coffee culture.
“I went to London and worked at EAT café when there were only 11 of them. I did all their training − by the time I left, there were 41 of them. “I moved on to Coffee Republic and ran the Bayswater branch and then moved to Ludgate before coming back to Ipswich to run Costa Coffee in Queen Street. ”
Caron has had a couple of businesses of her own since then - Froffee Coffee in Felixstowe and The Old Station House B&B in Woodbridge. She says she once tried office work but didn't like it.
She has been at the St Lawrence café since July, last year and has made it her mission to build a strong team; producing high quality, home-cooked fare; and offering a friendly atmosphere (that's all ticks, then). “I think I have found my forte,” says Caron who has re-sourced the food the café buys in, upped prices (for the first time in seven years), brought in new uniforms, and made sure the 19-strong team that works here (including two volunteers and two paid placements) has the chance to gain skills in all aspects of the work. “Everything we make is from scratch,” she says with understandable pride.
This is not a business that aims to make a huge profit but what profit it does make is reinvested to make it stronger.
And meanwhile, it is making a big difference to people's lives.