Steve Clarke, owner of South London’s Cafe Van Gogh, on operating a fully vegan eatery, its non-profit initiatives, and the effects of the pandemic.
Cafe Van Gogh is a community-driven, ethical, 100% vegan social enterprise near the Oval, on the road that leads to the vibrant heart of Brixton in South London.
Its owner, Steve Clarke, went vegetarian when he was 13. “More than two-thirds of my life ago. At university, I was an occasional hunt saboteur and this got me thinking about animal rights generally,” he tells me. “I don’t have any vegan icons as such, but I really admire Joaquin Phoenix for his outspoken awards ceremony speech.”
Clarke opened Cafe Van Gogh in September 2015, after 20 years of working in supported housing “with a wide range of support needs including addiction (and) poor mental health. I decided to take a career break. I’ve always wanted to open a café.”
The café is right around the corner from where Steve has lived for many years. “It’s a place I used to use frequently, and have always been charmed by. We opened as a community interest company, in a partnership arrangement with the church that leases the building to us.
“We’re not-for-profit, and our social mission is to improve the lives and career opportunities of people with learning disabilities by providing them with work training opportunities and supporting them into paid work in the hospitality sector.
“People who have trained with us have gone on to do a variety of things once they gain the confidence to join the workforce and have increased their skill set. Some have gone on to work at large high-street chains, and some have gone to work in small, family-run sandwich bars,” says Clarke.
And it’s not just the employees; he believes Cafe Van Gogh’s customers are some of the nicest and kindest in London: “We have a huge bunch of supportive regulars, many of whom we are on first-name terms with.”
This year has been a challenge for Clarke and his team — as it has been for all businesses in general: “Pre-Covid, the café had gone from strength to strength. In June 2019, we expanded the team of directors at the café, from solely myself to a team of three. We have Lena, who’s a voluntary director assisting us with fundraising and events planning, and Bonita, our head chef who is a co-owner and the director of food.”
The café’s food was making its mark in major publications, including Vogue, the Guardian, and Condé Nast Traveller. They recently raised sufficient investment via Crowdfunder and received support from the mayor of London “to install a new bar and renovate the downstairs café space, so we can improve on our social offer”.
Lockdown was difficult. “We closed the business a week before we were compelled to,” Clarke tells me. “And for the first couple of weeks, until the furlough announcement was made, it was hard to imagine how we’d survive.”
During lockdown, they sold vouchers and delivered free food to local homes in need, in conjunction with a local charity. “Since reopening, we’ve lost about half of our lunchtime covers, as so many offices in the local area are not staffed again, but our weekend and evening services are busy — albeit at reduced capacity due to social distancing.”
View this post on Instagram
As a non-profit, Cafe Van Gogh is “not driven by the desire to make lots of money”. “It’s important that we remain sustainable as a business. We’re an optimistic bunch of people, and have things to celebrate post-lockdown,” says the café owner. “We’ve got a new bar area and we’ve now hired our first-ever job coach.”
I ask Clarke about the growth of veganism, how vegan this world could be: “Conversations with customers have shown me that there is an increasing awareness of the environmental consequence of eating meat and dairy, which is making more and more people consider the direct impact of their diet on the future of this planet.
“As a business, we try and be as ethical as possible. We don’t use single use plastics, we compost all of our food waste, and we attempt to source things as sustainably as possible. There is always room for improvement, and we try and adapt to any challenges as and when they arise.”