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Serving Assembly: Lumberjack Coffee

by Michael Cleland

Working with a local charity to prepare young people for careers in hospitality, in Camberwell, south London.

The walk east from Camberwell Green towards Peckham takes you past a plethora of eating and drinking spots that have made Camberwell the go-to food destination south of the river.

Theo's pizzeria, Falafel and Shawarma, Kurdish eatery Nandine, Chinese institution Silk Road, Turkish Bistro FM Mangal, independent gastropub The Camberwell Arms... The list goes on. 

Directly opposite The Camberwell Arms sits a coffee shop. The vast front window of which is adorned with a striking geometric outline engraving of a woodchopper. Peer through the glass and you'll see it's full of shelving, furniture, fittings made from reclaimed wood. You've found Lumberjack Coffee.

Lumberjack is a well-known and much-loved local hangout, treasured for fresh homemade bakes and cakes, a vast deli offering and great coffee. It's downstairs seating area is a favourite for groups of friends and remote workers alike. There's an atmosphere of community that can be difficult to foster in a city as transient, fast-paced and vast as London.

Less known is Lumberjack's approach to staffing. Since opening in 2016, it has partnered with a local charity to employ young people between the ages of 16-24 who are classified as NEET - 'Not in Education, Employment, or Training'.

We cycled the 10 minutes from our Brixton roastery to Camberwell to meet managers Fraser and Tash (left and middle above), and assistant manager Steve (right), to get the story so far.

How did Lumberjack begin?

Tash - London Reclaimed was founded in 2012 with the aim of helping young people in Southwark, south London to step up into full-tine work. They created Goldfinch Furniture - an enterprise to train and employ 16-25-year-olds in designing and making ethical, high-quality wooden furniture.

Trainees would often talk of cafe experience being a useful entry to employment and when the opportunity to open a coffee shop appeared in 2016, it was taken without hesitation. Goldfinch works with a lot of reclaimed wood, hence the name Lumberjack.

How does the trainee programme at Lumberjack work?

Fraser - We take trainees on for a structured 12-month programme. The training is split up into three areas - floor and kitchen; customer service; barista. It's a rounded introduction to hospitality that is designed to fully prepare young people for their next job in the industry. The training progresses at the speed that each trainee feels comfortable with. There are no expectations from us, we want to understand what they want to get out of their training.

And we want them to be integral members of the team, it's not 'us' and 'them'. They're as important as we are in making the business work and we invest in their growth from new recruits, to supervisors, to managers who will train the trainees themselves.

Steve - We take a relatively informal approach to tracking progress. We're aware that our trainees often have a lot going on outside of their time with us in the cafe and so we're flexible and understanding if one of the trainees can't make a shift, or has to arrive late or leave early.

And we have regular meetings with every trainee to check in. We're actually looking at hiring a qualified youth worker to help us provide even better support.

How do you recruit new trainees?

T - Primarily with the help of St Giles Trust. Their group of youth workers work closely with a large number of young people who live in Southwark and across London. We’re specific about who we want so that we recruit the right people - they need to be happy being customer facing and open to learning a diverse mix of new skills. We'll speak to the Trust when we've an opportunity and they'll put forward their recommended candidates for us to interview. 

What are the benefits of the programme for Lumberjack?

F - Supporting our trainees and seeing them progress definitely adds an extra layer to the job for us. Our success as a team and a business isn’t solely based on how much money we take in a day, we have a much broader picture.

N - There are benefits for our customers, too. They appreciate watching our trainees grow and settle into the business and many of them understand that they have a role to play in supporting them to do this.

How do you make people aware of the programme?

S - If a customer asks ‘Where do you get your beautiful tables from?’ I take the opportunity to tell them they’re made by young people at Goldfinch, and that Goldfinch are linked to Lumberjack through London Reclaimed and so on and so forth. But generally we don't go out of our way to explain our setup as we feel it's quite difficult to communicate as effectively and valuably as we'd like. We're actually getting a display made to highlight how we work, so that will help.

F - You have to be careful as I think there’s unfair stigma attached to charity cafes that the quality of their offering isn’t going to match other similar businesses, because of their approach to staffing and recruitment. And it’s important to give depth to the reasons why our customers should keep coming back, without ramming it down their throats. It’s a fine balance that I think we manage quite well. 

Lumberjack has very low staff turnover in the management team, why is that?

F - We have a very strong relationship with the head of London Reclaimed, Mike, and its trustees. We’re always in constant communication with them about Lumberjack - what’s working well, what isn’t, plans for the future. We always feel like we’re listened to, that our opinions are valid, and that we have a tangible, visible impact on the business.

S - I’ve enjoyed working here more so than any other job I’ve had. It’s a combination of everything Fraser mentioned, plus a real local community feeling. It’s multi-faceted and it’s always stimulating, I never feel bored or as if I’m treading water.

And we know that our team love working here, that makes a huge difference. There are numerous reasons why they do - one of them is how well we pay our staff. We invest in our team and always set a high bar for the wages we offer.

N - We’re lucky to have creative freedom in the Lumberjack offering, and we make sure that all staff are involved in the creative process. One of our baristas is an artist and she’s hosting an exhibition of her work here as part of Camberwell Arts Festival 2022. We’ve given her space and trust to take total ownership of that and I value how we're able to showcase our staff if they have talents and passions outside of hospitality.

The business is clearly thriving, what’s the secret?

F - It's not complicated, we talk to people and make them feel welcome. I hate walking into a coffee shop and being hit with an air of snobbery. Quality doesn’t have to mean arrogance. Having a conversation with someone is so easy to do, doesn’t cost you anything and makes all the difference. 

S - The conversation thing is so true. If you get a great coffee but the service is bad, you’ll remember that more than if you had a great experience but the coffee wasn’t quite as good.

Human interaction makes a more lasting impression, and you’ll get to know your customers so much better if you give time and attention to speaking to them. Sometimes they’ll want to have a long conversation, sometimes they won’t. The important thing is being present and empathetic enough to recognise both situations.

N - I just love being part of people’s lives. I might have a very small window into their day-to-day but it feels important - sharing stories and hearing what they’ve got going on.

I got furloughed in 2020 and when I finally came back to work I was so glad to be able to talk to people again. Although I will admit that sometimes, as someone who wants the shop to be full of dogs all day, every day, if a customer walks in with a dog in tow, I do recognise the dog before I recognise the owner…

What’s next for Lumberjack?

F - Table service and food to order. We did offer a small menu before the pandemic and now we’re planning on fitting a more suitable kitchen to significantly extend the food offering. It would also allow us more scope for the training programme - we would add more kitchen skills into the process.

N - Before the pandemic we were definitively a cafe, then we transformed into a deli focusing on local products that also served takeaway coffee. That change in direction was so successful that we decided to extend the deli offering even as we’ve reinstated our sit-in tables. So we'll continue with our new, diversified setup and build on it.

And we’d also like to use our small back garden if we can, that’s something we’ve always wanted to do and plan to explore in the coming months.

Visit Lumberjack

70 Camberwell Church St

Open 8am-4pm Monday-Wednesday, 9am-4pm Thursday-Sunday.

Lumberjack serves Assembly House Espresso on espresso and Assembly filter coffees on batch brew.