Coffee Roastery Serves Up
Jobs for the Homeless

Old Spike Roastery in London was founded to offer high-quality coffee while helping the local homeless with high-quality jobs

Lucy, a barista at Old Spike Roastery in London, isn't your typical coffee shop employee. She’s very friendly, but she has only just started to learn English. She can make a mean flat white, yet she learned how to do so only five months ago, when the shop’s owners hired her right off the street.

And her story is emblematic of the mission at Old Spike, a coffee roastery founded by Cemel Ezal and Richard Robinson, that focuses on helping the local homeless population as much as it does on serving up conscientious cups of joe.

The pair initially began speaking with Lucy—who is originally from Romania—when they saw her selling copies of the Big Issue outside a train station, drawn in by her consistently positive attitude. After a few conversations through Google Translate, they convinced her to join Old Spike as the store's first barista.

"We later found out that she earned more from that two-hour training session with us than she does across a full day selling the Big Issue," Robinson tells PSFK. “She has not only drastically improved in her knowledge and ability to make coffee, the constant interaction with our customers has meant that her English has improved a huge amount too.”

To ensure they are supporting Lucy, Ezal and Robinson designed a business model for Old Spike that addresses key issues around homelessness; when possible, jobs offer a living wage, housing, a bank account, and occupational therapy and mental health support.

We have worked long and hard to make sure we are competing with some of the best roasters out there and knew the social enterprise model would only work if we could rely on the quality of our output: the coffee

Though Old Spike prides itself on helping the homeless population, Robinson says this doesn't mean they skimp on their coffee—in fact, they want people to stop by the shop purely on the basis of how their coffee tastes.

"We have worked long and hard to make sure we are competing with some of the best roasters out there and knew the social enterprise model would only work if we could rely on the quality of our output: the coffee," he says. “Without that, we wouldn’t be able to operate as a business which would ultimately minimize the amount of social good we are able to deliver.”

The shop's socially oriented spirit has roots in its name and location: A local workhouse in the neighborhood—affectionately known as The Spike, for the tool workers would use to crush rocks—provided jobs and housing for homeless people as early as the 1800s.

Old Spike’s unusual concept, meanwhile, is the combined result of its two founders’ dreams to start a social enterprise and a coffee roastery. While Ezel was inspired by a visit a tea house in Vietnam run by disabled employees, Robinson wanted to replicate the success of the independent coffee shops he went to while living in New York City.

"To be able to open a business and support your local community and in the best case aim to help reduce a key problem in our society felt like a natural and exciting journey to take," Robinson says.

Though the shop is currently only able to employ Lucy, Robinson says that Old Spike is looking for space to open a new roastery, where it will be able to offer more jobs. In the fall, the roastery will partner with the Big Issue to launch coffee carts around the city operated exclusively by homeless people.

Robinson adds that they would like to try to provide skills training around each individuals' abilities and interests—for instance, helping an employee with a flair for art find graphic design training with the goal of finding a long-term job in the field.

"The longer term aim is to provide a full life intervention for our staff so the support provided is not a short term fix but a sustainable option," he says.

The above article by Teo Armus first published on in July, 2015.