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A Coffee Carol

The story of Old Spike Roastery includes a Dickensian tale of the 21st century: The idea of fighting homelessness through the art of making coffee, a hip specialty café in South London and a caffeine-filled success rate to rival Jack’s famous beanstalk.

The combined roastery, social nerve centre and café lies in a sweet spot between the fruit markets and reggae vibes of Rye Lane and the parakeets of Peckham Rye Park, only a five-minute walk from Peckham train station. In front of the big glass windows, an adorable three-wheeled cart is parked.

As I step inside, I’m greeted by Jonny – Jonathan Gagel, the enthusiastic and talkative roasting manager. He’s busy cleaning the coffee machine with a degree of care, which makes me think of musicians handling their instruments, but is quite capable of juggling a conversation at the same time. The space is intimate, but open and full of light, governed by pared down aesthetics: exposed brick walls, some plywood, a plant here and there, and a roaster named Torberg. It has the vibe of something halfway between a traditional hipster café and an artist’s atelier.

Jonny keeps bustling about, grooming the machine, while telling me about the team and the origin of Old Spike. The story is a remarkable one, and brings to mind Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – except that the big turkey in the ending is replaced by coffee beans.

The rocking chair test

– One of our partners, Cemal Ezel, used to be a commodities trader – it’s a bit like investment banking, revolving around money and numbers, that kind of world. Two years ago, he went to Vietnam and visited a silent teahouse, where he took “the rocking chair test”. Basically, you imagine you’re ninety years old looking back at life, and then you assess it to see what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished.

The realisation that followed was not a nice one. Nevertheless, the newfound perspective on the shallowness of the capitalistic lifestyle he had pursued so far, would instigate a life change. The quest for true altruism became Cemal’s new mission in life.

– Coffee beans are the second most traded commodity in the world, so I think he had a spark of genius when he thought “I’m gonna help people through selling coffee”. He came back, quit his job, and put all his savings into this project.

A second partner, in a Old Spike’s non-hierarchal run of things, Richard Robinson, is a childhood friend of Cemal. While working in a design studio Protein, which also hosted the DunneFrankowski coffee shop, he met Rob Dunne, a brew aficionado if there ever was one. The three teamed up, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The project itself is an ambitious one, and understating the juxtaposition of components is a bit of a brain tease.

– There are actually two brands, Old Spike and Change Please. Old Spike is the hub, the roaster, the retail space, and we employ people who’ve been homeless. Its sister brand, Change Please, that is the coffee carts, like the one outside, and it works in conjunction with The Big Issue.

In total, there are five steel blue coffee carts like the one outside, placed all around the city, and equipped with a coffee machine in the back. The coffee carts serve the purpose of continuous barista training for the once homeless, and as the student becomes the teacher, the refined art of coffee making is passed on.

Lucy in the sky with coffee

– Our first homeless employee was Lucy. We saw her selling The Big Issue outside London Bridge train station, and just offered her a job on the spot. That was right in the beginning, we didn’t really know what we were doing, but we knew we wanted to help people. A little while after her husband, Marian, joined us as well. Now we go through homeless charities, like Crisis. But we will hire anyone as long as they are work-ready, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Another story is the one about Paul. He became homeless after a messy divorce, started with the carts, but is now our sales manager.

–It’s a really viable thing, a scalable idea is what they call it. We can set up the carts in every city, technically speaking. We give people a set of skills they can use anywhere in the world. And having really good coffee really helps.

Good coffee is an issue close to Jonny’s heart, and as the cleaning ritual comes to an end, he sits down with me. As he pours me a glass of water with the same virtuous elegance he applied to the cleaning, a car alarm goes off outside and a group of teenagers walk past laughing loudly.

– Many social enterprises put the social mission on a pedestal, making that the most important thing, and their product or service, whatever it is, isn’t as good. We want to make sure that our product and social enterprise go hand in hand.

Human connection

This focus on quality in both service and brew has resulted in a space where community is built on a daily basis, accompanied by the smell of freshly roasted coffee.

– We thought we could spread our message and our vision in a better way by having a café. It’s a space for people to come in and have a conversation. We can talk about our coffee, about being a social enterprise, and we get the chance to form great relationships with people.

Building relationships seems to come natural to Jonny. He casually name-drops different customers and their usual orders; like James, who always orders an Americano. This talent for human connection is combined with a deep love for the magic bean.

– I’m a coffee person. There are many different facets of it, and I’m interested in every part of it, I am constantly learning and trying to improve my knowledge of coffee. Coffee is a real science. People think everyone can make coffee, but they really can’t. I’ve been into it for eight years, and I’m still only at the tip if the iceberg. There’s a whole world still out there.

– But when I say I’m a coffee person, what I really mean is I’m in the hospitalities game. Making coffee isn’t only about making coffee – it’s about serving people, it’s about customer interaction, it’s about creating a connection. The coffee is just the medium through which I do that. And it’s a big passion of mine.

The past and the future

The name, “Old Spike” refers to the old Camberwell workhouse, a local resort where people who’d fallen on hard times back in the day could pay their way by breaking rocks on an old spike. The name was suggested by two old ladies stopping by for a chat, and it ties together the altruistic vision, the social profile and the connection to Peckham as a community.

However, when I mention Peckham’s recent label as “up and coming”, Jonny lets out a snort of amusement.

– Yeah, we like to think that we made Peckham cool – because we were one of the first places here. But the whole area is being regenerated, and gentrification is happening all over. Two years ago there was nothing going on, and now it’s thriving.

Thriving is also a good word to describe the success of the project this far. So much so, that that their biggest challenge has been keeping on top of things.

– Our growth has been so rapid – we’ve grown from zero to everything in a year, and it is wholly down to the social enterprise side of it. It sounds arrogant to say this, but the hardest part has been trying to keep up with the demand. It has also been challenging making sure we’ve got the infrastructure to support the people we hire, and we still haven’t helped as many as we would’ve liked.

Despite enthusiastic reviews and raging sales numbers, their ambition is far from quenched, and Jonny pours me the last drops of water while sharing their long-term goals.

– We want to help a hundred homeless people by the end of the year. On one side we want Old Spike to become one of the best roasteries in London and to maintain that as the premium brand. But our mission is really to change the face of homelessness. It sounds crazy, and it’s a very broad topic, but I think we have a good shot at helping people. So the main goal is to tackle homelessness, and until that’s done, I don’t think we’re finished.