Change Please backed by singer Will.i.am offers the homeless a serving of hope one coffee at a time

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Change Please: Cemal Ezel set it up in 2015 after travelling in Vietnam and visiting a tea house run by deaf and mute women


Would you buy coffee from a homeless person?

Doing so is the crux of social enterprise Change Please which offers destitute individuals a route off the streets and into full-time employment by training them as baristas.

The numbers of homeless people in Britain is rising according to the Government’s official annual street count. It found 4,751 people slept rough on a given night in autumn last year.

This is more than double compared to 2010. 

Change Please: Cemal Ezel set it up in 2015 after travelling in Vietnam and visiting a tea house run by deaf and mute women

Change Please: Cemal Ezel set it up in 2015 after travelling in Vietnam and visiting a tea house run by deaf and mute women

Change Please – a term often used by beggars – aims to tackle the problem as well as pit itself against the likes of Starbucks and Costa Coffee for a slice of Britain’s multi-billion pound coffee industry.

The venture is the brainchild of former city worker Cemal Ezel. He took inspiration from a tea shop run by deaf and mute people he stumbled across during a trip to Vietnam in 2013.

It was recently awarded $350,000 (£267,000) after being crowned winner of the Chivas Venture, which recognises the best social enterprises worldwide.  

The business has also caught the eye of musician and tech entrepreneur Will.i.am, who was one of the Chivas Venture judges and pledged to help establish the brand in the US next year at the awards ceremony in Amsterdam, Holland. 

Cemal, who was named Lloyds Bank social entrepreneur of the year in 2017, told This is Money: ‘Who says you can’t make money and do good at the same time.

‘People might grimace at the thought of buying coffee from a homeless person, but perception is a wonderful thing. 

‘If you look at the people we employ, you wouldn’t be able to guess that they were homeless. 

‘We are proud of the social aspect of our business but we’re not a charity. Buying a coffee from us shouldn’t be viewed as a pity purchase. 

‘We want people to to come to us because they enjoy the taste of the coffee. The homeless aspect should be a secondary consideration in their minds.’

The programme 

The premise is simple. Homeless people are trained as baristas to sell fresh coffee at £2.50 each from mobile carts on the high street.  

For their services, they are paid the London living wage – £10.20 at present – and given suppport with housing, bank accounts and mental well-being.

Staff can spend a maximum of six months manning a cart before being moved on.

The idea here is that each worker would learn valuable vocational and social skills in this time to help them re-enter society and move on to full time work – with the assistance of numerous partners of the programme including Pret-A-Manger according to Ezel. 

Change Please which offers homeless individuals a route off the streets and into full-time employment as a baristas

Change Please which offers homeless individuals a route off the streets and into full-time employment as a baristas

Change Please which offers homeless individuals a route off the streets and into full-time employment as a baristas

Employees aren’t plucked from the street at random though.

The company only considers individuals who have been referred from its voluntary sector partners including The Big Issue, One Housing Group and CentrePoint.

This is to ensure that only those who in the right condition and are engaged with additional support services.

HALIFAX BRANCH HAS A CHANGE PLEASE

Last month, This is Money visited the new Halifax mega branch in Tottenham Court Road, thought to be the country’s biggest.

Inside is a cafe run by Change Please, with all profits heading to the charity. 

Ezel said: ‘We think that is around 60 per cent of homeless people in the UK so we give them the means and opportunity to do that.’

When it comes to housing, rental contracts are negotiated between the company and landlord directly. 

Rents are automatically deducted from employee’s salary and paid straight to landlords to ensure payment. 

In the early stages of the business, Ezel invited some of his employees to stay with him until accommodation could be found for them.

He added: ‘Unfortunately that trust I had in some of them weren’t repaid. We kept coming across people with a gambling addiction who would resort to stealing to fund the addiction.

‘The biggest flaw with the business three years ago is that although we were helping homeless people into employment, we weren’t supporting them use their salaries wisely.’ 

Business growth 

Change Please isn’t Ezel’s first foray in business.

He co-founded the Old Spike Roastery, a sustainable coffee wholesaler and café in London which helped the victims of landmines and domestic abuse survivors in Peru before shifting his attention to affect change closer to home, through Change Please. 

Ezel bankrolled the venture by securing a £75,000 grant through UK charity Comic Relief, taking out a £25,000 Virgin Start-up loan and a further £22,000 in asset finance.  

The business, started out with one mobile coffee cart in Covent Garden, London, but quickly grew to 15 scattered throughout the capital, two in Manchester and even one in Perth, Australia. 

Will.i.am pledged to help establish Change Please in the US next year at the Chivas Venture awards ceremony

Will.i.am pledged to help establish Change Please in the US next year at the Chivas Venture awards ceremony

Will.i.am pledged to help establish Change Please in the US next year at the Chivas Venture awards ceremony

In September last year, the business expanded its offering by launching packets of its own brand coffee beans which will be stocked in Sainsburys and Ocado in the near future.

Each packet features a story of a person it has helped. 

The product costs £4.50 per bag, with a fraction from each sold going directly to the person featured on the packaging.

The business is backed by with weighty credentials in the food and drink sector, in Sahar Hashemi who co-founded Coffee Republic and Paolo Peretti a former chief operating offer at Pret-a-Manger and Leon.

But for Ezel, it is the employees who really drive the business. 

He spoke of the experiences of one former employee, called Adnan Abobaker, who jumped into the River Thames to save a woman from drowning in 2010. 

Abobaker, a former trained chef, first became homeless in 2001. After being awarded a medal for gallantry by Queen Elizabeth in 2012, Abobaker found himself on the streets again following the break up of a relationship.

He has since found his footing after going through ‘the programme’ with Change Please to train as a barista on a coffee cart in Borough Market in 2015. 

Ezel said: ‘This was a guy who risked his life by jumping into a freezing River Thames to save a member of the public. 

‘How on earth can a real life hero like him still find himself on the streets five years on from the event?’

The business has helped over 40 people transform their lives according to Ezel. 

Ezel said the Chivas Venture prize money will go towards opening a training academy in the UK and international expansion. 

Small Business Essentials





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