A speciality coffee shop which prides itself on doing things differently is showing compassion for Fitzrovia’s rough sleepers by asking its customers to donate a coffee so that a homeless person can come in and enjoy a free cup.
The initiative which started this spring is in stark contrast to the Fitzrovia Business Improvement District which has been discouraging its members from engaging with Fitzrovia’s rough sleeping community.
Gabriel Shohet, one of the co-founders at Black Sheep Coffee and responsible for the Free Coffee Initiative, told Fitzrovia News that everyday they see homeless people in the area and would like them to come into the shop and “get a coffee just like anyone else”.
At Black Sheep Coffee on Charlotte Street customers can buy a cup at a discounted price for someone who likes coffee but cannot afford it. For each donated or “suspended coffee” the shop staff write a note on a sticker and place it on their Free Coffee Board, and those who are not able to afford a cup can just tear it off and exchange it for a coffee. A shop in Philadelphia in the USA operates a similar scheme offering free pizza.
“Homelessness means a cold night and an empty stomach so that’s why we like to help our struggling friends with a warm cup of Black Sheep when we can,” they say.
But Shohet, who grew up in Geneva in Switzerland, is also concerned about people’s social well-being.
“Homeless people also suffer from severe isolation and often spend several days without exchanging a single word with anyone, or even make eye contact with another human being,” he says.
“Sometimes, ordering a coffee and chatting with a barista who knows you by your first name feels even better than the coffee itself.”
A lot of people that Shohet spoke to didn’t think it was a good idea. Some even advised him against it saying that encouraging homeless people to come in would cause problems.
“At Black Sheep we are good at listening to advice, and then ignoring it. We like to break boundaries. Black Sheep is about challenging the status quo,” he says.
And a big part of their style of business is using a type of coffee that is unusual in specialty coffee shops. While there are lots of gourmet coffee shops in Fitzrovia, “they are are all selling the same thing,” says Shohet.
Black Sheep Coffee sells coffee made from the robusta coffee bean, something that no-one else is doing. “We are the only specialty grade robusta retailers. Out robusta coffee beans come from a single estate in India. We do sell some arabica coffee for those who want a filter coffee, but 90 percent of what we serve is robusta.”
Robusta, as the name suggests, is a robust coffee plant that can be grown at a lower altitude. It has a high caffeine content which acts as a natural insecticide, has more protein so it creams better, and is less acidic than arabica, so easier on the stomach.
Black Sheep started out with a rented coffee machine doing pop-up shops in Camden Town and has steadily grown and creating 25 full-time jobs along the way. They still have an office in Camden Town supported by the Camden Collective part of Camden Town Unlimited Business Improvement District.
“The Camden Collective was a great opportunity to mix with a variety of other start-up businesses and many of us learnt from each other,” says Shohet.
The shop at Charlotte Street opened last year and is only temporary for a few more months. But Black Sheep will be moving into a permanent home at 5-7 Goodge Street, which is currently under construction. They also have a shop at Aldgate East and will be opening another branch in Wood Street in EC2.
Black Sheep Coffee, 63 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, London W1T 4PG.