In Walkinstown, a Cafe Helps Ease People Into the World of Work

The Green Kitchen offers homemade food in a green, modern decor in Walkinstown.

There’s a garden centre next door too, connected to the cafe. So, out the back, you’ll find a little oasis of potted flowers, herbs and plants. Moss hangs down from the wooden roofing.

But there’s more to the trendy eatery than meets the eye. Set up by near disability support service WALK, the Green Kitchen is a social enterprise, meant to provide a pathway to employment for those who might otherwise be left behind.

“The cafe is the first step on the employment ladder for the majority of people at WALK,” WALK Director of Services Austin O’Sullivan says.

A Work Scheme

Sitting in a shed outside the Green Kitchen, away from the din of customers and music, O’Sullivan tells how the cafe began.

It opened in 2012 with funding from the EU’s Ireland Wales Programme 2007–2013, alongside a Welsh charity called Agoriad Cyf, he says.

“[Agoriad Cyf] were further on with social enterprises. They had a number of social enterprise cafes,” he says.

“People that worked at their cafes had very mild disabilities,” he says. “So we [at WALK] were helping introduce work for people whose behaviour might be a little more challenging or who might need a bit more support.”

In return, Agoriad Cyf mentored WALK through opening up their own cafe.

Inside the Green Kitchen, Anna Brennan stands by the door, giving a polite smile to customers coming and going, and making sure to ask their names.

It’s just before 11am, the morning rush of customers has died, and it’s a bit quieter.

Photo by Aura McMenamin

Brennan, who has mild autism, says she linked in with WALK’s service in County Louth, getting work experience in a hotel in Drogheda.

After that, her job coach told her about an opening in the Green Kitchen.

“She said it was a lovely area and that I might want to try it out. So my mam drove me here and I met with [former cafe manager] Neil Lacey,” Brennan says.

Brennan lives in County Meath and travels two hours each way to get to work when she can’t get a lift. She’s been at the cafe for almost five years.

“Being able to get around” is one of the most important skills she’s learned, she says. “Knowing the different bus routes, the different bus numbers to get onto. And meeting people.” She has also learned to make coffee and work the till.

Autism affects her ability to socialise and interact with people, Brennan says. “Just understanding in general,” she says.

“It helped my confidence. It helped my self-esteem,” she says of the job. It improved her customer-service skills, too. “Now, I can go over and chat with people.”

Learning Skills

“Anna is an integral part of our team,” says Brian Kellard, the cafe manager.

Kellard took up the position in March, bringing his experience in industrial catering and restaurants.

Anna is one of 11 service users who work in the cafe and garden centre. Eight people without disabilities work alongside them, all paid the same rate of €9.80 an hour.

People are referred to the Green Kitchen, and their skill levels are assessed. They start with the basics, says O’Sullivan, like cleaning and setting tables.

The learning is at their own pace, he says. “They can do it for eight weeks or 10 weeks until they’ve learned that and can move on.”

At the cafe, they learn how to manage their time, wear appropriate clothes for work and focus on the job.

Many people, when they’re 15 or 16, get a part-time job in their local shop or somewhere. By the time they’re adults, they have some experience of work.

“People with an intellectual disability, because of the way the school structures are, they never get those opportunities,” says O’Sullivan.

Green Kitchen tries to fill that gap. There, people work in all aspects of the cafe: cooking, cleaning and customer service.

The unemployment rate among people with a disability was 26.3 percent, according to the 2016 census – more than double the 12.9 percent rate for the population as a whole.

Nearby, in Crumlin, the Ability Programme has been rolled out to get people into the workforce and education too.

Kellard says workplaces can be intimidating for people. “When you’re working, it’s like being on stage and there’s a fear factor from that.”

He says he’s aiming to give people a sense of empowerment, even in the smallest ways.

“We have a lad called Conor and his mission is to make at least one cappuccino,” says Kellard. “When he makes that cappuccino, you should see the joy from him and the whole process.”

The Food

The Green Kitchen’s menu isn’t too complicated: there are 14 breakfast and lunch items, with almost all the dishes priced under €10.

There are treats too, like apple tart, carrot cake and homemade muffins. The cafe serves Bell Lane Coffee, a roaster Kellard swears by.

O’Sullivan explains how the menu was developed.

Former cafe manager Neil Lacey had experience working with people with disabilities and brought in a chef, he says.

“Between them, they decided to go for a high-end bistro-type menu where all the food was freshly cooked,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s all very fresh and wholesome.”

For Kellard, it’s important to keep the basics right: good tea, scones and soup with fresh ingredients and brown bread.

“If they have faith in those products then customers will actually go further through your menu,” Kellard says. The lunch menu is where they’re branching out.

Kellard says: “One of the things in our current remit is going by sustainability. We’re following current food trends.”

Some of their more popular dishes this month are the smashed avocado toast and the chickpea, lentil and sweet potato curry, he says.

“Taking that information, we can go, ‘Actually, that’s where we can steer the ship,’” he says.

The Green Kitchen prioritises buying the freshest produce from suppliers, he says.

The wild-mushroom risotto is particularly tasty: it’s creamy, with a little spring onion and fresh cress and some parmesan shavings on top.

Future plans

Walkinstown Green Social Enterprise has shrunk its operations in recent years.

It used to operate the Mess Cafe in Richmond Barracks, and a cafe in the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun.

Then, in April, Dublin City Council put the operation of the Mess Cafe out to tender, and awarded the contract to a private operator, O’Sullivan says.

The cafe in the Rediscovery Centre is gone too. “It wasn’t commercially viable,” he says.

At the moment, the cafe plans to keep getting the word out in Walkinstown, says Kellard.

“It’s an area in transition,” he says. “There are younger families moving in.”

And the Green Kitchen team want their garden to feed into the cafe’s menu.

A polytunnel at the back of the garden centre will be developed by gardener Hubert Martin to grow ingredients in the summer.

“If we want cherry tomatoes or lettuce, we’ll be able to grow them,” says Kellard.

At the moment, the fresh herbs grown in the garden centre are used to garnish the cafe’s dishes.

“We’ll bring in a training process for service users to show how to grow vegetables,” says Kellard.

Brian Kellard and Austin O’Sullivan. Photo by Aura McMenamin.

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Aura McMenamin: Aura McMenamin is a city reporter.

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