Josh Littlejohn pictured at the Social Bite village, Granton, Edinburgh. Image: Ian Rutherford / Alamy Stock Photo
Josh Littlejohn was born in September 1986 in Edinburgh. He co-founded Social Bite in 2012, a social enterprise in Scotland with a mission to eradicate homelessness in the country. Social Bite started as a small coffee shop in Edinburgh, which led to a chain of sandwich shops that began offering jobs and free food to homeless people. It currently employs over 75 people, many from a background of homelessness; and gives out over 200,000 items of food each year to homeless and vulnerable people.
In May 2018, Josh and his team launched an innovative housing project for homeless people in Edinburgh called the Social Bite Village, welcoming their first residents later that year. The Village comprises of 11 prefabricated wooden houses with gardens and a community hub, built on vacant land. The project offers a home to vulnerable homeless people for 12-18 months, during which time they are provided with extensive support in a community environment where residents learn new skills and get their life back on track. This project combined with a nationwide ‘Housing First’ project that Social Bite created in partnership with the Scottish Government has resulted in over 1,000 homeless people being housed in Scotland.
Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self Littlejohn looked back at his inspiration for starting the Social Bite and subsequent success.
When I was 16 I was at high school, getting into like rock bands like Rage Against the Machine. And starting to get into drinking. But I was also quite politically engaged and idealistic. I was concerned with social issues like poverty and starting to attend protests and marches like the Make Poverty History march. My grandma in particular was very political, very socialist. Throughout her life she was on Ban the Bomb marches and very politically engaged. Anytime we got together as an extended family, it would always result in big, political, very heated debates and people storming out of the room.
I was fortunate to have parents who opened up their own successful restaurant business, so I grew up in relative privilege. As teenagers we used to give my dad a hard time and say, why aren’t you giving all your money to charity? That was a result of feeling that we had privileged backgrounds and it wasn’t quite fair.
I always had this idea that I wanted to change the world. When I was 17 I went to Ecuador for three months, volunteering to work with street children. That was quite a formative experience. I came back super idealistic and really determined that this was what I wanted my path to be, to try and make a difference. Then I did all kinds of things, like washing cars, and getting sponsored for running on a treadmill. I just really enjoyed fundraising. When I went back into university and studied politics and economics, my aspiration was to get involved in something politically or socially when I graduated. But that idealism dimmed at university; I spent most of my time making loads of new friends and getting drunk.
When I was 21, I set up an events business called Capsule Events with the very traditional motive of trying to make a profit. And for several years I totally deviated from any social or political concerns. But I definitely had a nagging sense of awareness that though I was absolutely loving the entrepreneurial stuff and coming up with ideas, I did feel a kind of hollowness. A voice saying, this is not what you thought you were going to do. So when I stumbled across the social enterprise business model a few years later, the entrepreneurial business which had a social mission underpinning it, I felt a real sense of wow, this really aligns with me, this would get me back onto a path I really identify with.
We opened the first Social Bite sandwich shop cafe in the summer of 2012. The original idea was quite one-dimensional, to try and make a profit and give that to different charities. But within the first two weeks of being open, this young homeless man [called Peter] plucked up the courage to ask me for a job. He naively assumed that I could change his life but it’s much more accurate to say he changed my life. He changed the whole focus of the business and what we would go on to do.
My grandma passed away a few years into our change of direction, but she was around to see the first cafes. We started to open up on Christmas Day and provide services for homeless people. I remember one year when my grandma was up in Scotland for Christmas and she came along to that. And when I was doing these big fundraising dinners, where we had all these high-profile people coming over to speak like Bill Clinton, she came to that. She always wanted her grandkids to be politically engaged. I think she’d be really happy to think she was an inspiration for what we’ve gone on to do.
There are loads of things I could go back and tell my younger self about setting up that business. Social Bite should really have gone bankrupt 100 times. We were naive and clueless when we first set up, it was just such a steep learning curve. From the very first day – I had managed to raise about £40,000 through my events company to get the cafe open, that was all the money I had. I invested all of it in the shop fit, including us painting the walls and doing the tiling. Then on the day we opened, I literally ran out of money. The fruit and veg man came with our first day’s produce and told me I had to pay cash on delivery. I didn’t have any. So I had to come up with some excuse about not getting to the bank. It was a total miracle that we survived, but I suppose that’s the miracle of people getting behind you and supporting you. I don’t know if I’d tell my younger self to do things differently because you can only learn by doing. Sometimes you just have to jump in with both feet, make lots of mistakes and just try to keep learning and keep pivoting.
There’s a kind of myth that we set up this cafe and told George Clooney about it and he flew all the way over the world just to have a sandwich. The longer version is that in 2012, prior to setting up Social Bite, I set up an event called the Scottish Business Awards. I thought if I called it that it would sound prestigious, as if it had been around for a long time. And it grew into quite a big dinner. We had Bob Geldof speaking at the first one.
The next year I just googled Bill Clinton, found the Clinton Foundation website and filled out the contact form on the website. And that’s how we got Bill Clinton. At the time Social Bite had a little chain of cafes, in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. We were looking for another keynote speaker for our annual dinner, and we came across George Clooney, who was the co-founder of a human rights charity. He agreed to come and speak, so we told him about the cafe and asked if he’d consider coming along and spending 10 minutes in there. And we were told he’d love to. The next year we got Leonardo DiCaprio. Everyone was dumbfounded as to how on earth this little cafe was making friends in Hollywood, but it was transformative for us.
We really had good fun with George Clooney. Above all, he was really funny, he has a really good sense of humour. Obviously the cafes are staffed by people from all backgrounds including homeless people, and he was so giving with his time. He had no airs and graces, he was taking selfies with everyone. And he was with us all day, so we got to spend quite a bit of time with him during the day, then at the dinner at night. He was just a super-lovely guy and really unfazed by all of the craziness, the media attention and all that. I put that down to the fact that he didn’t become famous until he was in his thirties. So he was fully formed by the time he became famous and now he just seems to enjoy it and takes the whole thing in his stride.
There have been many times when I’ve just looked around and thought, oh my god, this is actually happening. George Clooney at the cafe was one. And The World’s Big Sleep Out [Will Smith and Helen Mirren were just two of the 60,000 people around the world who slept outside on 7 December 2019 to raise awareness about the many homeless people who have no choice to sleep anywhere else]. To go from wondering if we could persuade many people to sleep out overnight to lying in my sleeping bag next to my wife, surrounded by 1,000 people, in Times Square – that was a real pinch-me moment. I’ll probably never undertake anything quite as ambitious as that again, so I’ll definitely cherish that memory forever.
I think that 16-year-old me would be pretty happy with my life. It was always my ambition to make a difference. The thing I’m most happy about is that I feel I’ve achieved a sort of alignment with my younger self. I think that’s a really, really lucky thing to do. So many people can’t or don’t manage that. I was fortunate getting on that path when I was young, before I had a family or a mortgage, when I had no responsibilities. I think the minute you have a mortgage to pay it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to take those risks. In my book I’ve written a dedication for my wife and my 11-month-old son, and I made a bit of a wish for my son. I thought about that alignment with my younger self and I wrote to him, I hope you become yourself.
Paying it Forwardby Josh Littlejohn is out now (Bonnier, £20) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.
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