Back in early 2015 Cemal Ezel pondered a question: how can I use our caffeine obsession to tackle homelessness?
Using the Big Issue model and inspiration from a trip to a silent teahouse in Vietnam run by deaf and mute women, Ezel hit on a radical idea. The former City trader, who runs partner company Old Spike Roastery, figured he could train ex-rough sleepers into skilled baristas and pay them the London living wage (currently £10.20 per hour) to manage a fleet of three-wheeled coffee carts.
“I wanted to be able to look back on my life when I was 90 and feel I’ve left the world in a better place to how I found it,” says Ezel.
Change Please was launched as a not-for-profit company later that year with a handful of coffee carts in central London locations. Within their first four months they sold 78,000 cups of coffee; each one helping to fund more training, and more support.
So how are they able to do all this? For starters, Change Please doesn’t spend millions on marketing, branding and high-street rent. What’s more margins in the coffee business are, by Ezel’s own admission, “pretty big”.
Such is the high standard of coffee available in the capital and beyond, Ezel knew that people would only keep coming back if their daily coffee was a top-notch brew.
“Our toughest challenge has been overcoming the perception that just because we are doing social and environmental good, the quality of our coffee would be sacrificed. Absolutely not. We purchase speciality coffee beans, sourced from around the world and have won four Great Taste Awards.”
A company fuelled by a passion for social justice and excellent, affordable coffee
Most importantly, the company is fuelled by Ezel’s passion for social justice and excellent, affordable coffee. “Homelessness has doubled since 2010, and I’ve never seen the problem so bad,” he says. “Seeing the employees of the corporates we work with becoming passionate about our brand and wanting to support us, makes me feel passionate and proud about what we are doing.”
Sodexo is one of these corporates. The company has opened five Change Please coffee bars across its UK sites and is helping to bring Ezel’s brand to a much wider audience.
“It feels fantastic to be working with Sodexo. They have been proactive in promoting us to their clients and we are proud that it’s helping to retain existing clients and win new business but, most importantly, it’s helping to spread the message that we can do good without compromise.”
And what does the future hold in such a fast-growing, ever-shifting sector?
Ezel is hoping to grow Change Please into the fourth-biggest coffee chain in the UK and is looking abroad for inspiration. “Apart from innovating with how we use the profits to help the homeless, we are ‘stealing’ some innovations from Melbourne and the US markets, but you’ll have to wait to know more …”