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Café Relax


Café Relax community café was set up in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, to inspire, enable and motivate local people to eat more healthily. It opened in May 2009 with an aim to serve healthy meals from Monday to Friday. It provided a space for local people to meet; and also acted as a community resource where residents could access training and enterprise opportunities.



  • Use the café to promote local, seasonal and community-produced food and develop a programme of activity with local growing schemes.
  • Help build community cohesion and capacity, by engaging women from the many cultural groups and nationalities in the area and having them work together for the success of the café, thereby developing their skills.

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City Gateway is a community regeneration charity based in Tower Hamlets, working to reach and engage marginalised local women and young people, progress them into tailored training programmes, and subsequently to support them into employment. Flavour Gateway was launched by the City Gateway Enterprise Hub, which establishes and supports social enterprises to provide work experience, apprenticeships and jobs for the service users of City Gateway training and employability projects.

Around 150 women used the charity’s Lansbury Lodge centre every week and while a number of these had found employment, most were struggling to find the practical experience and flexible work they needed. These women came from various challenging situations including domestic violence, economic deprivation, poor education, social isolation, mental health problems, caring for disabled children, poor English language skills, low self-esteem, etc.

Childcare, language and confidence were particular ongoing barriers. However, many of the women had existing skills, including fantastic catering abilities.

The Enterprise Hub ran a business start-up training course for a group of these women, which led to a discussion about what kind of business could be started up at Lansbury Lodge. A rarely used but well equipped catering kitchen, plus a woman with previous experience of working in a catering start-up, gave rise to the idea of running a catering social enterprise. This would aim to provide local women with the opportunity to build on their existing skills and to gain work experience and flexible employment in the catering industry.

The community café was a later addition that would also provide access to affordable, healthy food for centre users and local residents, and a hugely valuable social space, both of which had been identified as pressing needs.

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Following the business development framework applied by the enterprise hub with all start-ups, a business plan was developed by the women who had attended the training course under the leadership of a business manager from the hub. This included doing market research, local community surveys, interviews, competitor analysis and a branding workshop. The results helped shape the service (types of food to serve, proposed use of the café, menu and pricing preferences etc.).

Key markets for Café Relax were identified as local residents and existing users of the centre, which included around 150 women attending courses there every week. The centre is also very close to three primary schools, so many parents pass within a minute’s walk of Lansbury Lodge every day. Exchange visits were set up with successful community cafés in Bow, Camden and Limehouse, which provided valuable information.

It was decided that all the café’s menus would be defined by four characteristics:

  • International – menus would include dishes from each of the keyethnic communities represented in Tower Hamlets (including British), providing customers with an opportunity to sample contemporary cuisine
  • Healthy – all menus would include healthy options, clearly labelled, and work with dieticians would ensure that different cultural dishes would be healthier
  • Fresh – all dishes would be prepared within 24 hours of serving
  • Sustainable – ingredients would be sourced as locally as possible, including from the local Hind Grove food co-op and vegetables grown by women at the centre.

The café was refurbished and equipment was purchased using funding from Well London and Flavour Gateway. HSS are a corporate partner and financed the refurbishment as part of their CSR programme. Staff underwent barista training before flyers were distributed to local residents and organisations. A newsletter was produced and there was press coverage of the launch.

Café Relax has had to provide a flexible approach to working in order to create jobs that work around the challenges facing the staff; this means that Flavour Gateway often has to make social business decisions rather than commercial ones. The cost is often extra management support so having adequate skilled personnel at this level is a critical success factor. According to Yvette Elkana of Flavour Gateway, “Our staff are wonderfully committed, focused and supportive and reluctant to move to other organisations despite other attractive employment opportunities. We’re touched by the success of the project in changing lives and bringing hope to the community. Making that difference creates a faithful workforce.”

The café is based at Lansbury Lodge and is run by the Lansbury Women’s Project. It is supported by local catering social enterprise Flavour Gateway, which employs currently economically inactive women living in Tower Hamlets.

The results from the questionnaire were used by Trading Standards staff to devise a sampling programme. The samples that were collected from local food outlets and retailers were then tested and analysed by Staffordshire County Council Scientific Services.

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After an intense two months of preparation, Café Relax opened in May 2009, serving customers on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. In October 2009 the cafe launched new Monday to Friday opening hours (9am–4.30pm). This coincided with the launch of a revised healthy menu and a discount card for local residents.

Fanghua is now a Trainee Manager at Café Relax. She has lived in Poplar for more than 10 years and first visited Lansbury Lodge for an exercise class when it opened. She then started volunteering in Flavour Gateway and is now vital to the operation of Café Relax: “I feel very happy to be involved with the café. It is a very special place. I now know how to make cappuccinos, lattes and smoothies. I think we offer customers a warm welcome and all of us working in the café are a team – we help each other out.”

The women who work at the café share recipes and approaches to cooking – this helps them to understand each other’s cultures and breaks down cultural barriers. There is now a team of women who support each other both in work and outside work.

Flavour Gateway successfully applied for funding from Well London to deliver Cook & Eat courses and started delivering these in February 2010. The courses teach people how to cook quick, healthy and affordable food and are targeted at residents of the Hind Grove area of Tower Hamlets, where there are high levels of unhealthy eating habits. The sessions are particularly aimed at men and families, and each session will run for 5 weeks. The courses are run at Lansbury Lodge, where Café Relax is based.

Future plans include working in partnership with the Hind Grove Food Co-op, purchasing ingredients from there, joint marketing, shared events, and catering for the co-op or showcasing café recipes at the co-op.

Flavour Gateway has now developed and delivers a Hospitality and Catering (City & Guilds Level 2) training and apprenticeship programme where Café Relax provides work placements along with Restaurant Associates at Thomson Reuters in Canary Wharf. This provides excellent professional kitchen experience for the trainees. Three women have gained the confidence and cooking skills to enable them to come off benefits to take up jobs elsewhere, in one case to be a kitchen assistant in a local school. The four women who have done work placements at Thomson Reuters have been offered jobs there.

There are also plans to expand into a second location with a larger kitchen, so look out for Café Relax 2! This will allow Flavour Gateway to open up their training to young people and men in the local community.

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In a survey of customers at Café Relax carried out in October 2009, 77% of respondents agreed that the café had helped them to make healthier eating choices, while 67% of individuals said the café had helped them to access affordable healthy food.

Yvette Elkana, Managing Director of Flavour Gateway, says: “We pride ourselves on the fact that the Café Relax menu offers people healthy options without compromising the flavour – we have dishes from Bangladesh, India, Jamaica, China and Britain.”

It appears that there are many catering professionals willing to support the social enterprise. As Yvette explains, “Flavour Gateway/Café Relax staff and trainees are already benefitting from a partnership with the Restaurant Associates team at neighbouring Canary Wharf firm Thomson Reuter, who help deliver aspects of our NVQ programme. We’ve also had voluntary consultancy from a former New York restaurateur living locally. He became a tutor for us on our training programme.”

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  • Make sure you have enough start-up funding to take you through the first 12 months of trading, even if you don’t make the sales you hope to.
  • Don’t underestimate how long it will take to set up – probably twice as long as you think!
  • Build up local networks of contacts and suppliers
  • Learn from other successful ventures in the area
  • Think about ongoing customer service and quality training to continue to satisfy your customers.

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