Inside the inclusive London cafe where the only rule is that employees must be kind

The Fair Shot Cafe brews up more than just coffee - its inclusive workplace training scheme provides work opportunities for people with learning disabilities.

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Helena Young
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Nestled down a quiet street in Covent Garden, just a minute’s walk away from the bustling underground station, sits a very different kind of coffeehouse.

Part-business, part-social experiment, Fair Shot Cafe’s mission is simple: transform the prospects of people with learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Through valuable skills training, apprentices are given the experience they need to enter into long-term, sustainable employment.

Founded by CEO Bianca Tavella in 2019, the social enterprise has since kickstarted the careers of 21 young adults – as well as opening its doors across multiple central London locations. Still, there remains a family feel to the newest Fair Shot home on Slingsby Place.

Graduation pictures from the first two cohorts of trainees line the walls (the third, 15-person cohort began in September), alongside a mixture of cheerful potted plants.

Standing ready at the till is its server, Thomas Coombe-Tennant. At Fair Shot, trainees rotate to a different station each day to ensure they develop a breadth of catering skills. Support is available via a job coach who shadows their mentee and helps with tasks or communicating with customers, if required.

Thomas tells Startups he has learnt a lot during his time at Fair Shot, and wants to be a barista in his next job. “I really like working here, and I have made lots of friends,” he smiles. “I have learnt listening skills and how to speak up.”

Thomas Fair Shot trainee

Fair Shot trainee, Thomas Coombes-Tennant

Staff work alongside the trainees, providing support. There is no division here: visitors are invited to interact with trainees and assist with their customer service training. Such visibility was important to Tavella.

“I wanted to open a cafe because it was public facing,” she says. “I knew it would give people the opportunity to be part of the movement.”

People with disabilities ‘shut out’ from employment

Tavella was inspired to start Fair Shot after her parents helped to set up a support group for people with learning disabilities when she was a child. Employment for adults with a learning disability or ASD has remained consistently low for years.

However, the latest government figures show that the rate had fallen considerably to 4.8% by October 2022. For the remaining 95%, the chances of finding work are slim without good quality learning and development support.

Fair Shot aims to be the missing link between employer and job seeker. While programmes like the government’s Access to Work grant exist, this is exclusively for practical alterations like recruiting a BSL interpreter or adapting a vehicle.

Fair Shot external view, Covent Garden

Fair Shot Cafe at Slingsby Place, Covent Garden

Firms are expected to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled employees – including changes to the recruitment process – with minimal guidance. Fair Shot takes care of this part of the process, which can be daunting for those unacquainted.

Tavella says there are a lot of misconceptions about creating an inclusive workplace that employers can wrongly buy into. In fact, she herself was unsure that the idea was possible.

“I was constantly fed misinformation about people with learning disabilities and what they were capable of,” Tavella bemoans. “I had gone to similar cafes, but I’d never really seen the trainees fully do everything like they do here.”

It was only after she successfully ran a taster session at West London College, and trained up 40 adults with learning disabilities for her workforce, that she knew the Fair Shot model had legs.

Empathy is the best policy

Building an inclusive workplace means first understanding the obstacles for workers with disabilities. These vary hugely depending on the individual. For example, language barriers will vary if a person has hearing impairments, is non-verbal, or simply prefers to use a different communication style.

For Fair Shot, hardware has proven to be a surprisingly important tool. Tavella recalls taking a long time to find a POS system that could be accessible and easy for trainees to use.

“I picked Square because it’s easy to add pictures or take photos of menu items,” she announces. “We have had trainees who don’t know how to read. Some trainees can be super focused on taking an order and might be non-verbal, meaning customers have difficulty following. The imagery makes the POS accessible and usable to them.”

Fair Shot Founder and CEO Bianca Tavella

Bianca Tavella, founder and CEO of Fair Shot

But, as Tavella tells it: prioritising diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, such as through a neuroinclusive work policy, is not just about bringing in new technologies or processes.

Equally – if not more – important is for staff to take an open-minded, empathetic approach to people management. In this way, the employer learns as much as the trainee.

“With one of our trainees, we realised she needs a set structure for her day,” Tavella recounts. “So, every hour, the job coach made sure she did something different. That’s something that she can now draw up herself at the beginning of every shift.”

Hiring is a similar story. Other than hospitality experience and a DBS check, the only requirement asked of Fair Shot employees during the interview stages is that they must be kind.

“We want to create a forgiving and supportive environment,” Tavella explains. “Everything’s exactly the same for every person, we don’t use different calendars or machines. It’s the support and patience we offer in our person-centred approach that is unique.”

Alba Bagueste has worked as a full-time employee at Fair Shot for 18 months. She says that the experience has shown her the importance of keeping an open-minded, varied approach to inclusivity.

“Something that works for one person, will not work for another,” she elaborates. “Working here has really taught me how to adapt my communication style.”

Alba Fair Shot employee

Alba Bagueste, Fair Shot employee

Partnering for good

Applying this kind of bespoke coaching model is also what has given Fair Shot its most impressive statistic: 67% of all trainees were job ready after just one year of learning.

That’s because the cafe’s goal is sustainable employment, not just a stamp on the CV. Rather than shoehorning apprentices into the first available job opening, Fair Shot instead collaborates with its employment partners to craft a position that considers a long-term, personalised plan.

Tavella highlights an ex-trainee who has Down syndrome as an example. While the original goal was to hire a host-cum-coffee maker at a branch of Treehouse Hotels, the graduate’s chatty disposition saw him also being placed as a door greeter.

Firms are often told that, to build a workplace that promotes DEI, they must invest in expensive hardware or third-party consultancies. But Fair Shot’s approach to hiring signals that an organisational culture promoting trust and respect is the real, base ingredient for partners.

It might feel like a small step change. Still, that attitude shift is what Tavella sees as the secret weapon to promoting a fairer, more equal workplace.

“I’m not only trying to give our trainees employment, I’m also trying to change people’s minds,” she says. “You can see the impact that we’re having already. Exposing people to that positive experience makes such a difference.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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