Coffee and church seem to go well together. In fact it seems to be increasingly important – no church event is complete without coffee. Coffee seems to be becoming increasingly important as a means to facilitate conversation; it performs the role of a useful ‘social lubricant’.
Churches make good use of coffee because in our culture it is a widely shared and understood means of enabling social interaction. But coffee and church is expressed in a wide variety of ways, from simple tea and coffee at one end of the spectrum to a fully commercial franchised café (‘St Arbucks’?) at the other end. Being clear about where you want to place yourself on that spectrum has huge implications both for the design of your building, and for the ongoing life of the Church.
If at all possible, you want to place your coffee at the front of your building. It is often coffee that draws people across the threshold. The biggest legacy of the Victorian age is that church buildings are now perceived as ‘the religious club’ – only for those who are fully paid up members. Very few people now are comfortable going into our buildings for the ‘smell of God’, but many more are willing to come in for the smell of coffee.
Coffee is hospitality. Coffee is triage. Coffee is front line first stage mission. Where the traditional model of Church is that you are either inside or outside, in reality very few people come to faith with a sudden Pauline ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion. More usually people come to faith by much smaller stages, and in the context of human relationships. Our buildings need to reflect this, by allowing for a process of ‘phased engagement’. The natural place for coffee is therefore at the front of the building, in the first space you enter.
Words Of Warning
Too much caffeine can of course make us over-excited, so before we get carried away, there are some important practicalities you should consider:
- Is there a market for this? It is essential to understand your local market. Is your location already awash with coffee? – if so you may struggle to make it work financially.
- Is this rooted in our mission and vision? Doing anything well takes effort and consumes limited resources; you shouldn’t be in the business of running a coffee shop for the sake of it.
- Understand the implications of costly hospitality. Within that first zone of engagement of the cafe, everyone is welcome. That includes the paedophile, the thief, the prostitute, or simply the homeless person – just the sort of people Jesus felt comfortable associating with. Elsewhere in your building you may well be running childcare, and you have important safeguarding responsibilities. This can all be accommodated within the same building, but will have implications for layout (including WCs), access control etc.
- Modelling Community – this is one of the biggest potential social wins for the church. We can model a richer sense of community that is hugely attractive – it is called the Kingdom of God.
- Take the Opportunities. Running a café alongside childcare presents great opportunities. Parents of young children are often renegotiating their identity and place in life; they are often also desperate for human interaction, and quite possibly are craving caffeine to counter the sleep deprivation. In marketing terms you would call this cross-selling; in ministry terms it is holistic mission.
- Think about your branding – how does the branding of the café relate to the bigger brand of the church. Take some professional advice on this, and to choose something that will appeal to your potential customers, not just to the church.
- Don’t forget the additional facilities that will be needed with a commercial or semi-commercial café, such as an office space, somewhere for staff to change, dry food storage etc.
3 Legal Models
If you’re going to run a ‘proper’ café, you need to think about what legal form is appropriate. Here are some examples, covering a variety of different approaches. All of these examples are open 5 or 6 days a week, and are used by the church on Sundays. Alongside good quality teas and coffees they all also serve light meals.
ZEPH’S CAFÉ, TRINITY METHODIST CHURCH, OADBY
The church overlooks the main car park in Oadby, a town outside Leicester. The church formed a separate trading company with all staff directly employed. The café has the only kitchen in the building, which is therefore also used by the church at other times.
ST ANDREW’S CENTRE, HISTON, CAMBRIDGE
A High Street location in a busy village outside Cambridge, in a building also used for daily childcare and a variety of church and community activities. This employs a café manager, supplemented by volunteers. The building has two kitchens – a ‘commercial’ one dedicated to the café, and a second ‘domestic’ one for the halls. A separate trading company was set up for the café; this enabled VAT to be reclaimed both on the initial capital costs of creating the café and the subsequent costs of running it, without the need for the church to charge VAT on the other activities within the building, such as room hire.
CORNERSTONE CAFÉ, ST PHILIP’S CHURCH, MILL ROAD, CAMBRIDGE
Mill Road is a busy area with several other cafés nearby. The operation of the café is leased to The Papworth Trust who run it commercially while providing training to people with disabilities. The building has only one kitchen, so the church has use of it out of hours.
CAFÉ AT ALL SAINTS, HEREFORD
A ground-breaking scheme from the mid 1990s, the café sits in the nave of a medieval church in the middle of Hereford. The building now receives 3-4,000 visitors a week. The café occupies a prominent position in the nave, and there is no attempt to separate it from church, which carries on around it; this was both necessary, given the nature of the building, but also a deliberate move made for sound theological reasons.