The Milk Café

The Glasgow social enterprise 
helping migrant women to intergrate

Louise Thomason catches up with West Side-raised Gabby Cluness. She is co-founder and co-director of Milk Café, a social enterprise in Glasgow's southside that seeks to help ethnic minority women to integrate, alongside business partner and friend Angela Ireland.

The Milk Café is no ordinary lunch spot. The space is a social enterprise which aims to empower and promote the integration of ethnic minority women who live in Glasgow, offering volunteer opportunities and the chance to learn new skills in a friendly, supportive environment.

Plans for the venture began while Gabby, 31, and Angela were living and working in Latin America. Despite having no catering experience, they were committed to the idea of a social enterprise café and after returning to Glasgow and volunteering with various refugee support groups such as The Bridges Programme, felt that refugee and migrant women "would be a really good fit" for the type of people they wanted to support through running a cafe.

They began by establishing Tin Cat, a community interest company, of which Milk is the first project, in June 2014. A year later they had found a venue, and in June 2016 Milk opened its doors.

Gabby said: "Neither of us had any catering experience other than being social butterflies who liked the odd dinner party or two. I have always liked cooking but certainly had no real professional kitchen experience.

"We had to learn everything on the go, and this was pretty evident to anyone who experienced some of our more tragic culinary episodes in the first few weeks after opening. We went to some relevant training regarding asylum seekers and working with volunteers, but we seemed to think that it would all sort of work out, and thanks to a lot of help and a dose of luck, it kind of has!"

In the short time it has been open, the cafe has provided much more than just food. Milk has become a community hub, providing a place for local Roma children and other people – particularly women – who might otherwise struggle to find opportunities and places to go.

As well as offering volunteering opportunities in the cafe, Milk hosts free classes in things like art and sewing. They also arrange regular events, such as open mic nights and pop up restaurants, supporting charities such as Hope Not Hate.

The anti-racism charity was the beneficiary of the proceeds Milk made by selling an "ugly and unhealthy" cake in the image of US president Donald Trump after his election in November.

These events mean so much more than just a nice way to spend an evening, however: “The art class particularly has been really successful and getting lots of different women together and creating a really special atmosphere.

I think people can be dismissive of making things and crafty stuff, but I think it is so important in Milk, for our volunteers and for the bairns we work with. It doesn't require any language skills or academic prowess to be able to take part, and the act of creating something is so uplifting and empowering.

It also allows relationships to form in a relaxed way whilst hands are busy, and it doesn’t feel so forced. Equally some women just use it as a time to be quiet and focus on the present. [It’s] mindfulness in action!

While the cafe is notable for its social enterprise credentials, Milk is gaining a reputation for brilliant food too, with the volunteers sharing exotic recipes.

Gabby said: “We had an amazing woman, Valentina, volunteering with us for a long time, who was originally Romanian but had lived in Palestine most of her life. She is one of those cooks who just has to look at something and it tastes [fantastic] … she taught us lots of recipes including a revolutionary hummus (no olive oil!) and a fantastic shakshuka recipe, which is eggs baked in a spicy tomato base. Delicious.

[We’ve] also had a lot of Eritrean volunteers, who have shown us how to make injera, which is a fermented pancake. It takes about five days and you have to do quite a lot with it, and sadly I am too lazy so have yet to try it myself, but I believe the steps are vaguely cemented in my brain if there was ever an Injera emergency.

Gabby said: "It is fantastic to see people trying new things that they have never even heard of. We do however do a lot of pop-ups featuring one type of cuisine; this has included Palestinian, Mexican, Moroccan and Eritrean evenings. They were all sold out, which shows that people do have a palate for new and interesting dishes, just perhaps not on a Sunday morning at 10am when a bacon sandwich seems to trump all."

The food they use, where possible, also supports local or social enterprise organisations. Their coffee is sourced from a family-run company in Dumbarton, and their bread is baked by social enterprise Freedom Bakery, which trains inmates at HMP Low Moss (on the outskirts of Bishopbriggs) in artisan baking with the intention of finding an industry-related career post-release.

Milk has been open for approaching two years, and while running it is understandably challenging, Gabby says it has been “genuinely wonderful.”

It sounds really smug, but it has been exactly as I hoped, and I am pretty sure Angela feels the same.

It is really hard work, but we are so proud of how the cafe has grown and developed, and how many brilliant folk we have had come through the doors as volunteers and customers. It feels like we are really part of the Govanhill community, which is a lovely feeling and one which I think the volunteers feel as well, which is just fantastic.

The cafe is just one aspect of Tin Cat, and what Gabby hopes will be the start of more meaningful community based social enterprises: “The cafe format works really well, and it would be wonderful to open one up in the east end of Glasgow tool, as there are large refugee populations living there with not much in the way of community projects.

Much further down the line, it would be really nice to do something which confronted traditional gender roles. We often wish one of us had done plumbing at college so we could start up something in that vein, but I suspect fitting in a four-year apprenticeship at the moment may be a bit of a struggle. We have so many ideas that it is hard to pick just one, but I hope that the next year will show us launching another exciting project.

The above article first published on in Feb, 2017.