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Cafe that finds work for adults with learning disabilities appeals for help amid cost of living crisis

“One of the positives that came out of Covid was a real feeling of wanting to support local businesses, or businesses that meant something to you, because you wanted to keep them open,” said the cafe’s head chef

A unique cafe helping people with learning disabilities find work has appealed for support, saying the cost of living crisis has put them in a “tough” situation.

Cafe Van Gogh in Brixton, south London, offers a 100 per cent vegan menu and helps adults who might otherwise be locked out of work into employment.

The cafe has launched a “booking drive” to boost custom and help it fight off the impact of the crisis, which has increased the cost of ingredients, energy bills, and staffing.

It’s an appeal suited to the cost of living crisis, said director and head chef Bonita De Silva, as punters with less money to eat out start to consider who to support when they do. And it’s already seeing results, with a call-out gaining traction on social media.

“One of the positives that came out of Covid was a real feeling of wanting to support local businesses, or businesses that meant something to you, because you wanted to keep them open,” De Silva told The Big Issue.

“I think that has changed the mentality of customers a little bit, and that’s something really nice that’s come out of something quite shitty.”

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What sets Cafe Van Gogh apart – providing training and job opportunities for adults with learning disabilities – also pushes costs up.

Compared to a neurotypical employee, those with learning disabilities may require longer shifts, and the cafe has a job coach working alongside participants.

“The point is we want to give that opportunity to someone who wouldn’t have it otherwise. That’s always been really important for us to prioritise,” De Silva said.

“We aren’t in this to make money. That’s not what our drive is – we want to have a great restaurant that provides great food, but our main passion is to train people with learning difficulties.”

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However, this social mission also comes with business benefits – staff retention is higher, and the model offers a solution to widespread labour shortages in the hospitality industry.

The uncertain financial situation has put some of the cafe’s plans for 2023 on hold.

Proposals for a new kitchen – helped by a grant from Big Issue Invest, the Big Issue’s social investment arm – have been slowed down, as have plans to take on more participants for training.

Key to pulling through is staying busy – especially during Veganuary – and mobilising the support of the community and customers, said De Silva.

“It’s just about getting people through the doors and supporting us,” she said.

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