Cup of cheer
Redemption Roasters is a remarkable business that gives prisoners hope for the future by training them to become skilled baristas.
Article by Melanie Wotherspoon, Client Development Director, Rathbones
Darren had been in prison for much of adulthood when two events transformed his life. The 46-year-old found God, and he found coffee. Faith gave him hope, coffee gave him passion, and Redemption Roasters gave him a job.
Eighteen months since his release from Wormwood Scrubs, Darren is still going straight, working as a barista in the Lamb’s Conduit Street branch of the growing coffee shop chain.
He is one of a growing band of former prisoners now employed by Redemption Roasters, which has seven shops in London and a thriving wholesale business, working with restaurants, bars, cafés, offices and even some National Trust properties.
Founders Max Dubiel and Ted Rosner did not set out to build a commercial charity. Entrepreneurs first and foremost, they developed the company as a spin-out of Dubiel’s first coffee business, Black Sheep.
“We wanted a brand that had a proper story to tell,” says Dubiel. “Through coincidence, we were approached by the Ministry of Justice, which was looking for industry partners to deliver barista training in prisons. We thought that was pretty out there. It could be an interesting story that we could build a concept around — and, rather than just doing barista training, why not actually build a roastery in a prison and teach the whole value chain around coffee?
“Of course, we constantly tread the line between sustaining a successful, profitable business and doing good. People have a misconception that roasting in prisons is cheaper. If we were doing this purely for commercial purposes we would just open a warehouse — it would be easier — but it would take the story out of what we do.”
Redemption’s first roastery was at Aylesbury, a young offender institute. Now the business delivers barista training in seven male prisons and a community-based laboratory. It is looking to expand to a women’s prison.
Inmates considered for the barista course are carefully vetted beforehand. Dubiel says: “We don’t really look at the criminal offence they’ve committed but the risk they present — we would never want to put our staff at risk. We look at their behaviour record and then at whether they have an interest in coffee, any background in coffee shops and where they are going to be released and when.”
Not everyone who takes the course progresses further than the initial three-week training. Dubiel says you can tell quite quickly who has the potential and who “just signed up to get out of their cell”. Even for those who do the course for a change of scene, though, the benefits can be huge.
“Just three weeks of meaningful activity results in less violence, less depression, fewer incidents of self-harm and a better outlook on life, as well as better job prospects,” says Dubiel.
This positivity carries on outside the prison gates. Nearly half of the adult prisoners released each year reoffend within 12 months, but two-thirds of those who are given education or training will still be walking the straight and narrow a year after release.
Inmates who shine on the course begin to develop an advanced level of coffee cognisance. Over three weeks they learn about espresso extraction, brew ratios and temperatures and how to steam milk to a fine micro-foam.
Dubiel says: “You really need exceptional skills to be a good specialty coffee barista. It’s something people who don’t know specialty coffee underestimate. First of all, it’s the knowledge about the coffee, where the coffee comes from, what sort of roast level it’s got and how best to prepare it.
“There’s quite complicated chemistry involved when it comes to brew ratios, temperatures and extraction times if you want to extract an espresso well. Then most coffees in the UK are drunk with milk. That’s also not as easy as it seems. Steaming milk well is difficult, and you really need several weeks of training and hands-on experience. If someone steams the milk well then it caramelises beautifully, frothing to a really fine micro-foam that almost has the consistency of honey and makes your flat white into something lovely.”
Successful graduates of the course who do not find a job with Redemption are helped into employment elsewhere within the hospitality industry. “Ex-offenders are incredibly loyal,” says Dubiel. “They work harder than anyone else, because they have to.”
Redemption Roasters blends most of its coffee from Brazilian, Colombian and Honduran beans. In addition, it offers single-origin coffees in season from countries like Kenya, Uganda, El Salvador and Ethiopia.
The business does not subscribe to the Fairtrade movement. Dubiel says: “It was brilliant at making people aware of commodity prices in the 1990s, but we pay between four and six times what the Fairtrade Foundation prescribes for our coffee today. We work with smaller farmers who couldn’t afford the Fairtrade audit.
“It’s eye-opening to see how coffee provides entire livelihoods and how much manual labour goes into its production. Just pouring away a single cup of coffee pains me after having seen all the manual work that’s gone into every single bean that’s made it.”
COVID-19 has inevitably been a serious blow to the business this year. It came just after a successful funding round in December and the opening of a new, much bigger roastery. Dubiel says: “The timing of the fundraiser was lucky, because I don’t think we would have found any investors foolish enough to invest in the hospitality business a few months after it.
“We were at complete capacity at our previous roastery in Aylesbury — we were actually working seven days a week. We opened a much larger space at HMP The Mount and got a huge roaster in there. From a 50-square-metre workshop, we moved into an 800-square-metre workshop. From a roaster that could do about 12 kilos per batch (or 1.5 tons a week), we could now do 70 kilos a batch (or 10 tons a week). Then COVID struck and we were literally doing all our week’s roasting in about half a day. But at least it gave us scalability for when this is all over.”
Dubiel’s biggest concern was his staff. “When it all kicked off and our shops were forced to close, it was a big shock at first. One thing that the UK government isn’t actually given a lot of credit for is that its help came through so quickly, which is so important — especially in our industry, where you’re dealing with ex-offenders. These guys are extremely vulnerable and live hand to mouth. They don’t have savings. They have to turn to some imaginative means of finding money if you’re only two weeks late with their pay.”
For Darren, Redemption Roasters has quite literally been a godsend. He says: “It’s a good environment for me. I’m in society. Being around people and having a purposeful job changes your whole outlook on life. The mindset from my old life is gone. I feel like I’m making amends.”
Visit rathbones.com/founders for more stories of founders and their remarkable businesses, including Hotel Chocolat, Emma Bridgewater and Mowgli.