Kinfolk: a Melbourne social enterprise cafe

Kinfolk Café, Bourke St, Melbourne. Established in 2010. Social enterprise: a business which invests its value, either monetary or in kind, to reach social outcomes.

Kinfolk is based on the premise that the customer can choose where the profit from their coffee sale goes: to one of four community organisations in Melbourne, Palm Island, Ghana and Rwanda. The idea is empowerment via the ability to create change from at home.

Kinfolk is conscious of using sustainable food practices: all items from the menu are either organic, local or freerange, and always seasonal. Plates are created with the intent of giving the customers something to talk about.

Kinfolk also ‘gives back’ to those who work there: the café is run by 6 full time staff, and 30-odd volunteers at a time. Jarrod, one of Kinfolk’s founders, estimates that over the past two or so years, Kinfolk has had 200 volunteers lend their time, from age 15 to 72. People volunteer for all sorts of reasons, and Kinfolk aims to provide whatever opportunities people are reaching for.

”Some have come back from injury trying to get on the workforce, some from illness, some wanna do something fun on the side, some wanna make friends, some want an outlet to speak to people, whatever, just basically about helping that core team, and also create that atmosphere that it’s home. You know, you walk in, you’re not just walking in to any old café”.

What a perfect place to start this interview from: not just any old café. What is it that has attracted so many people to Kinfolk?

I meet Jarrod at the café for the interview. A few years ago I was involved with some of the more conceptual elements of Kinfolk, however I hadn’t been back since. It was so lovely to actually be there and see what had become of the vision and idealism that it was founded upon, and its realization into such a vibrant, warm and successful café.

I’m very interested in hearing about the reality of running a social enterprise. How do you balance the business sense with the social outcomes? Is there a compromise somewhere along the way?

Jarrod remains adamant that the good business sense needs to come first, before the social outcomes. “We’re a café first and foremost,” he says, “we want to be judged on the quality of the café” – a fact which I really respect. There’s obviously a lot of love in this café, a lot of community minded people who really do give a shit. But the business nous has not been lost amidst all this drive.

“If you think of a normal café, you’ve got a shareholder and at the end of the day he’s thinking of his pocket, his bottom line and all that. The way this place runs, there is no shareholder; if there’s any shareholder, it’s the projects [Jarrod’s referring to the community groups which receive profits from sales] but they’re not here running the place day to day. So it’s the people who are in here, running the place, it has to be run in a way that benefits them.”

Jarrod veers off talking about the business model to focus on the importance of the staff.

“If they’re not getting what they need personally out of the experience, if they don’t have the opportunities for growth, all those sort of things, it doesn’t work… If these guys have got the nurturing they need, the place does run.

“I think the volunteer aspect can be quite confusing for some people; they think, oh you know you don’t pay wages so it must be really easy to run a business like that, but it’s expensive as well because you’re investing a lot of time in the volunteers. So, more than just having a couple of staff on who know what their job is, instead you have more staff on so they can nurture the volunteers, their experience and all that, and that’s probably our biggest social outcome, really… the social outcome that we’ve actually helped influence with the volunteers that have been involved, far outweighs that $40,000 financial value, you know, that we’ve been able to distribute.”

I am really impressed: $40,00 has already been distributed, from a start up organisation, after only two years of operation! That’s a lot! I am very tempted to jump straight to talking about the logistics of that profit distribution, but I don’t want to interrupt Jarrod’s flow. So we continue to talk about the business elements of running the café.

“You might remember, back at the start when we were talking about it, we never wanted this social outcome, social cause stuff to be in your face – we wanted it to be judged as a café, first and foremost. And coz we do that, we’re able to maintain a really good level of quality, consistency, and you know that sort of stuff.

“Any social enterprise struggles to achieve that if they don’t focus on their commercial offering first, so we never compromised on that, you know, we’ve got really good people working here, we pay them the wage they need to be paid, you know, provide them the opportunities they need, and we just try to make sure that what we offer is consistent from day to day.”

Of course from this point the obvious question to ask is about that ‘commercial offering’. There was a lot of debate about the menu when I was involved with the café, so I’m interested to know what kind of decisions were reached – what does the café offer to the Melbourne CBD clientele?

“The menu changes every day here, so it’s quite challenging in that sense. We started off the café with Ravi, a really good chef with a lot of experience, worked in some of the finest restaurants in Melbourne – and I worked under Ravi for the first seven months or so as assistant chef – just to make sure I could do it if he wasn’t there. So, we designed a menu that was fresh, healthy where possible, and always seasonal, local and organic, as much as possible.

“We also try with that menu to have ingredients on there that will inspire and create conversation around the food – so we source things people haven’t heard of before. Just encouraging our customers to try different foods, and it also provides more in terms of that volunteer aspect as well… It just makes that whole training aspect of what they’re doing at a higher level, more sophisticated than just reading off menus.”

When we were starting to talk about the menu, way back in 2009, there was a lot of debate about whether to make it vegetarian, given the ethical implications. I ask Jarrod about that now, “why was the decision made in the end to have meat?”

“I think it really comes down to a business decision, and what he people of this are want. We always try to cater for something for the vegetarian, the gluten free, the vegan… but yeah I ‘spose it comes down to they way I think social enterprise should be looking at it.

“It’s a business offering that I’m gonna provide, and is it going to be sustainable or is it not. The vegetarian thing could have worked here, but not in the same format, like café-fare food… it just surprises me all the time. You know, we could have a beautiful, beautiful vegetarian toasted sandwich in the cabinet, and then have something not so fancy that’s got ham and cheese on it, and the ham and cheese one will go out the door and the vegetarian one, you know, later on in the day you sell a few… but it really comes down to business viability and all that sort of stuff.“

“So”, I say, with super excitement, “let’s talk about the projects! How’s that all been going?”

“Yeah, it’s been going great! Um, we distributed $40,000 at the end of 2010, after six months, but we didn’t get a chance to distribute last year. Any money we did have at the end of 2011 we invested back into this renovation, which has increased our capacity by about 25%, and increased our take away capacity by probably, I don’t know, 100%, 150%. So in terms of being able to provide the sort of financial support to those projects, we’re in a much better position now to offer some serious money over the next few years.“

The idea of consumer-driven charity in Kinfolk means that the customer gets to choose here the profits from their sale goes. This is done through the pictorial representation of a coffee bean in one of four jars, each allocated to a ‘project’. The customer drops a coffee bean into which ever jar that represents the charity they want to support. The team then distribute the profits according to this ration.

“Everyone’s got their own reasons why they connect with a certain project… you know, everyone’s an individual, they’ve all got their different thing that sort of pulls their heartstrings.”

The four organisations include a soup kitchen in Melbourne, called Credo Café, a project to support education for indigenous children, called the Cathy Freeman Foundation, a NGO which combats child trafficking in Ghana, and an community-developer based in Rwanda.

The café hopes to get to the stage where they can distribute the profits quarterly, but the reality is that they’ve got to make sure the café is sustainable and successful in its first few years, in order to ensure its longevity.

“So yeah, last year was a very big turning point in terms of small business, what you need to do in terms to survive, to invest your money in and all the rest of it. But sales are still growing, and they haven’t really stopped growing since day one. And I’ve learnt to think of it as well in terms of the social outcomes we achieve day by day for the people that are in here.”

“So do you feel, then, that they’ll be a deliberate shifting in focus away from just these four larger projects that were initially decided upon to fund, or is there a chance for it all to happen?” I ask.

“Um, you can’t really have one without the other. So, we’ve got a holistic approach in the way we run: we’ve got the projects that receive the profits, we’ve got the staff and volunteers and everything… I don’t think any of them’s exclusive to themselves – it’s a network, it’s a family of all these things – and I don’t think you could have one without the other. If we didn’t provide the profits to those four projects, people wouldn’t come in here and volunteer, if they didn’t volunteer you wouldn’t have all the social things that go with that, So yeah, they’re all entwined, and all support one another; it’s a good system.

“Day to day, there’s a lot of extra stuff that can go on in this space, you know, now that it’s running as a functioning café, you can support some of these community projects.”

Jarrod gives me a ton of examples of things that go on in the café, from meditation to stretching classes, to fundraisers to keynote dinners…

“It’s all around the conversations you have around food, and all the rest of it, and having inspiring people who are there. I don’t like to think of it as a keynote speakers, but sort of, someone who’s been invited, who’s got an interesting story… no one has an ordinary life, you know, so lets hear a bit about theirs.”

“You just must have such good access to really inspiring, wonderful, interesting people,” I say.

“Oh, there’s heaps of wonderful people,” Jarrod responds, “everyone’s wonderful if they’ve got the chance to show it, you know.”

It’s that line which pretty much makes the interview, and blows me away by its generosity and simplicity (that, and the delicious coffee which I’ve had over the course of the interview, and the prospect of a baguette with avocado, celeriac, poached chicken remoulade and fresh horseradish).

If you’re interested in checking out Kinfolk, head to:

673 Bourke St, Melbourne or