Analysis: Two friends who woke up and smelled the coffee

The ambitions and teething troubles of a community interest company that gives homeless people and ex-offenders training to be coffee vendors

Tom Harris: former rough sleeper, now a barista
Tom Harris: former rough sleeper, now a barista

Two years ago, Mat Corbett bumped into his former colleague Kieron Tilley at a conference about rehabilitating offenders. The pair worked together 20 years earlier in a community centre in Battersea, south London, and had moved on to successful careers in the charity sector working with disadvantaged people. However, both had become frustrated by efforts to help disadvantaged people to find work.

Corbett says: "We were both tired of the treadmill of the welfare-to-work programme. We were forcing people into jobs that weren't really careers, knowing that six months later we'd see them again."

They decided they wanted to set up a social enterprise that would not only provide training to homeless people, former offenders and young people struggling to find work, but also help them to become self-employed. "Initially, we were going to do street food and catering, but the set-up costs were too high. So we thought we'd create self-employed coffee vendors."

They registered their social enterprise, We Walk The Line, as a community interest company in October 2013 and set about turning their vision into reality by investing £10,000 of their own money in a pedal-powered coffee trike. The concept seemed to get off to a great start in summer 2014 when the department store Selfridges offered a place for the trike in its London store, but the deal fell through. Corbett says: "They loved the idea of offering artisanal coffee from a social enterprise, but the cart uses a butane gas bottle to heat the water and it was rejected on health and safety grounds."

They found another location at the Emmaus shop in east London and hired Tom Harris, a former rough sleeper, as barista. It secured pitches at a number of events last year, including the launch of the Whistles menswear range and Lloyds Bank's entrepreneur of the year awards. This May, it opened a more traditional outlet at the Dalston Roof Park in Hackney, east London.

Corbett says it hopes to train five apprentices this year, using Harris as a mentor.

After a year to 18 months, it wants to set the apprentices up with their own trikes or pitches. Under the proposed model, the profits from each of the sites would be split between baristas and the social enterprise, which will reinvest the money to help fund training for more apprentices.

Stumbling block

Corbett admits that a lack of investment has proved a stumbling block. He and Tilley have so far invested about £20,000 of their own money, but funding from backers such as trusts, foundations and social investors, has proved elusive. "Everyone loves the idea, but no one wants to put their money up," says Corbett. "Social investment people have told us to apply, but when we have done so they've said we're too early in our development and told us to come back in two years. But in two years' time we might have bankrupted ourselves. Funders don't seem to want to take the risks. Traditional charitable funders also put you under more due diligence because you're not a charity."

As a result, the founders have sought to raise £20,000 through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. The fundraising campaign will run until 1 July and is offering potential backers a range of incentives, such as bringing the coffee trike to your workplace, depending on how much you invest.

The scheme is already making an impact. Since being employed by the social enterprise, Harris has been able to save up enough money to buy a lifeboat, which he is planning to convert into a home.

Corbett is optimistic about the future. "Everyone we speak to says it's great. In a year's time, I think we could have people all over the country. I think it's a scaleable model."

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