Guy talk with… Redemption Roasters

Pop into my cafe Social Pantry or my restaurant Soane’s Kitchen in Ealing and you’ll see Redemption Roasters coffee beans proudly sitting atop our coffee machines. Born out of the need to help reduce reoffending rates once prisoners leave prison, Redemption Roasters is a speciality coffee roastery that operates out of HMP Aylesbury and in my opinion, produces some of the finest coffee you’ll ever taste. I’ve worked with Redemption Roasters for many years and couldn’t wait to catch-up with co-founder Ted on changing peoples expectations, the challenges of working within prisons and what the future holds…

You’re co-founder of one of the most enterprising coffee businesses in the UK, Redemption Roasters – talk me through your role and the journey to get there…
I qualified as a solicitor in 2015 but my firm didn’t want to retain me after my training contract. By chance, one of my best friends from university (and my now business partner), Max, was moving on from a coffee company he had founded. We had done a couple of small business things together in the past and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to team up again. We started selling coffee under Max’s old brand that he had retained the wholesale rights in, but we kind of knew that we needed something more exciting at some point. When an opportunity to work with the MoJ came up, we knew this was it. Having originally been approached simply as a coffee training provider to the MoJ, Max had the incredible idea of offering them something altogether more innovative: a coffee company centred around a prison-based roastery followed by job opportunities on the outside for ex-offenders. And now, nearly three years later, here we are!

Redemption Roasters equips young men with skills for life after prison – what’s the most rewarding thing about working with ex-offenders?
Changing peoples’ expectations of what people who wind up in prison are like. Most are more like you than you think.

From personal experience, I know that working in prison has a unique set of challenges… what’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced since you started Redemption Roasters? How did you overcome it?
I’m going to give you a very general answer on this: ‘getting stuff done’ in prisons is hard. Although very well-meaning, the people in charge there have different priorities to you and probably necessarily so. We tackle this by trying to maintain a good relationship with the prison and the characters there. That’s the only way you can be effective. I’m not naturally the most diplomatic, but if you try to tell prison people what’s what, the shutters go down and everything’s a ‘no.’ We also have a major advantage in that we are materially helping them hit their outcome targets apropos re-offending, so they want to keep us sweet enough.

Redemption Roasters is incredibly socially aware and responsible, have you got any sage words of advice that other businesses can follow to do their bit?
As I’ve got very little experience, I wouldn’t profess to tell anyone how to do anything with much confidence. However (and sorry to take apart the question) I think if you have a company and want to ‘do your bit,’ it’s not a social enterprise, but something with a charitable arm. I think a social enterprise needs to have their financial outcomes inextricably linked to their social ones; however worthy, it can’t be a bolt on. If businesses (read especially: ‘big’ businesses) want to ‘do their bit,’ I’d suggest incorporating social enterprises in your supply chain. Buying stuff from them supports them.

What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
Don’t run out of cash.

Redemption Roasters has an incredibly inspiring business model, who do you personally look up to for inspiration and why?
There are two founders I look up to – one in art and one in fashion. But generally, I’m not a ‘looking up’ kind of person. I’m not very reverent. Sorry.

With the cafes and prison, you must have to travel a fair amount – how do you balance this with your home and social life?
Aylesbury is quite easy to get to and our premises are quite close to each other. So, I wouldn’t say I travel a lot more than anyone else who lives in city ill-designed for its scale. Obviously running this business isn’t simple. I wouldn’t say it’s overly burdensome on my private life because I’ve always been quite obsessive over whatever I’ve been trying to achieve in my career, education etc. so it’s baked into my habits and lifestyle. I’m lucky because I’ve never struggled to make and keep friends and, overall, I’m quite an independent person. I do wish I could have a dog, but I think it would be impractical for me and it.

Where would you like to see Redemption Roasters in five years time?
Profitable and measurably impactful. Taking those in turn, first, I want to return economic value to shareholders who have shown incredible faith in us. I think a strong bottom line will encourage more social entrepreneurship. Second, at the moment, although we are having impact, it’s primarily case study-based: “we employed X in our roastery and now he works for us” or “we trained Y in our academy and connected them to employment with a coffee shop in their home town.” Don’t get me wrong, that’s nice, but it’s evicdotal. I want to answer the question “what impact are you having” with clear empirical data that proves our project has affected a statistical class.

On to the less serious stuff! What do you enjoy doing to relax after a stressful day?
If it’s been a stressful day then I probably go home, work some more and worry. I’m half joking. Pub, football, running, music and film are all important to me.

Talk me through your day in food: Do you have time for breakfast? What’s your favourite meal?
No one doesn’t have time for breakfast – some people just don’t like getting up early! For breakfast, always builder’s tea. To eat, I normally have porridge or muesli. Sometimes toast. In a moment of indiscretion, I go for a greasy spoon. And that’s my real favourite meal.

Where are your favourite places to eat out and why?
I’m not really a big eat outer. I like a greasy spoon or the curry house. I’m partial to a private equity-backed burger. Moving up the scale a bit, there’s a place near my house called ‘Friends of Ours’ which I really like and I always enjoy myself at the Eagle on Farringdon Road. If I had to name ‘real’ restaurants, St John, I guess.

If I came over for dinner, what sort of food would you serve?
I’m quite organised and fearful of failure so I never serve food to other people that leaves anything to chance. To me, substantial cooking with guests present leaves stuff to chance. Hence, the food must be capable of being prepared the day before with only the ‘sides’ made on the spot. That way, I always have a second shot. I’m quite into this sausage, chorizo and bean casserole thing at the moment. So probably that.

Lastly, besides coffee beans are there any specific ingredients you couldn’t live without?
To quote an internet meme, ‘some people won’t try bacon for religious reasons. I won’t try religion for bacon reasons.’ So yeah, bacon.

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