MILK Cafe + Lebanese Supper Club
Many Voices Many Kitchens this week is in Govanhill, Glasgow, to talk to MILK Cafe. This interview took place before the current lockdown restrictions were in place in the West of Scotland, and we touched on topics ranging from working with refugee women, the concept of righteous anger, and Lebanese food!
SWK: How would you describe what MILK does?
MILK: We’re a social enterprise cafe that works with refugee migrant women to promote community integration within Glasgow. We do this in a variety of ways – through volunteer placements in the cafe and also ESOL (English-for-Speakers-of-Other-Languages) based classes, which could just be a straight-up language class or a creative workshop, something like an art or cooking class. We have consistent classes that we do and then we also have people who approach us with their own interesting ideas and we can then facilitate them to produce these in small groups, once a month or so.
SWK: What made you want to start MILK and to create a social enterprise cafe?
MILK: We were interested in hospitality and enjoyed working in cafes but also naturally leaned more into wanting to do that in a way which focused on community aspects rather than making a profit, even though people don’t get into running their own cafes with the aim of making lots of money anyway, but still, we thought it would be much more interesting to try to run a business that looked at food and drink as a way into community engagement. For us, the thing we like the best is that social enterprise bit, and the food is just a portal to that work, rather than the main focus.
SWK: How does this work in practice? How do you decide what goes on your menus, for instance?
MILK: We run with the area we’re in and what sells here. We do experiment as well, for instance with our Thursday and Friday evening Supper Clubs which focus on ‘world’ cuisines, where we involve volunteers from the local community who have experience with those cuisines to produce a menu of takeaway food to sell. Which has sold really well. But in terms of our regular cafe menu people are quite traditional with what they like, a bit more classically ‘British’, so eggs, bacon, mushrooms, that sort of thing. In the beginning we did have more unusual dishes too but quite often they either didn’t sell or the women who made them just moved on.
We do still try to have condiments that are a bit more interesting, because that’s where I think we can be more daring. People are prepared to try something if it’s in a tub on the side of their meal rather than risk a whole lunch of it. So in that sense we do try to reflect the women we’re working with, we just do it now within quite a tightly bound arena. People may like the idea of having Iraqi lamb stew on a menu, but then they will still order a bacon sandwich! And that’s fine – in a way it’s even quite nice for the women we work with because almost every single one of them still cooks their food from ‘home’ when they’re at home, so for them, having to cook the British cafe style of food is a fun change. I mean, they may still think that it’s crap food and won’t eat it themselves! But they will still enjoy trying it out!
We also give the women we work with free reign in as many ways as possible, so even if they want to make something that we don’t think will sell we’ll still encourage them. And sometimes we’ve done that and have been completely wrong too and they’ve sold loads/
SWK: And how does the ESOL work you do tie into the food side of things?
MILK: Two ways, mainly: after the women have volunteered in the cafe for a couple of hours we usually pair them up with an ESOL teacher from the community, preferably someone trained but if not then at least someone with a background in language work, so in literature or journalism, and then together they’ll practice their communication for around an hour and a half. So that’s a really nice experience and is at the heart of what we do because we’re giving both local and recently-arrived women a chance to meet and connect and learn from each other.
But the amazing thing about pairing that with food is that the food becomes just another form of language. So for anyone who isn’t confident in their spoken English, it’s really nice to still have this other form of communication that they can do confidently. Cooking can be an overture of friendship or a way to show a willingness to connect, and it’s amazing how many of the women we work with can be so confident in the kitchen even though when you sit down with them to try to fill in a form they may be terrified, so for them to be able to express their confidence is a marvellous thing.
SWK: How much collaboration is there between yourselves and the other social enterprises around Govanhill?
MILK: We’ve sporadically worked with the Govanhill Community Canteen, Refuweegee, the Scottish Refugee Council, Merry-go-Round, loads more. When the pandemic first happened we also started working in conjunction with Al-Khair, who were asked to provide hot food for the local homeless population who were placed in emergency accommodation, so we’ve been cooking three times a week for sixty people a day as well. And that only came about because we already had a link with Al-Khair. We do always feel like we could do more, and I think it’s the same with a lot of social enterprises where we all do sometimes get so busy that inter-connecting and working together isn’t done particularly well. Which is nobody’s fault – we’re all working way more hours than we’re supposed to anyway, but maybe we need someone in Govanhill to take on that project and to be a bit of an administrator for all the groups here!
I do think that the pandemic has given a lot of people more spare time actually and so naturally more links have been made this year. Govanhill has such an amazing community of people doing different things and trying to make it a nicer place to live.
SWK: Speaking on the pandemic, how has it been for MILK?
MILK: Probably the same as everyone! It’s financially had a big impact on us of course, but I think that it’s just going to get harder. For places like us, we’re not able to do any of the main things that for me make this place special, so none of the classes, none of the volunteers, we’re just cooking and cleaning, and of course that’s still nice to an extent but it’s also still difficult. And I do understand why this has happened and why we’ve had to do this and I do think it’s the right call, but it’s still a bit sad.
At the same time we’ve been lucky to be so well supported. We did a crowdfunder and were overwhelmed by how kind people were to us, but I’m not sure if that would be the same now when everyone is so much more worried about the future of both themselves and the country as a whole.
In a way I hope that experiencing some of these hardships, even stuff like panic buying or not being able to access health-care, makes people think a bit more about high-risk groups like refugees and that it will then excite their compassion for others, although I’m not sure it’s done that yet. I do think there are small changes that are being made within communities and that people are trying harder to look at what they can do to help with wider issues as well. For instance, more people perhaps see now that the pandemic partly happened because of the way animals are treated in such unsustainable, revolting ways, and that it spread so quickly because of ineffective governments that don’t care enough about the welfare of their people. So I do hope that there is some righteous anger that comes out of all of this, even though I also recognise that it is hard. I’m still eating meat, even though I have these ideas in my head about it being disgusting and what’s right and wrong, but it’s just hard to make changes! We just need to find more ways to channel our anger, maybe. Things like the Black Lives Matter movement prove that it can be done to some degree, even though some of the changes they campaign for are still yet to happen as well. Sorry, I know that was a bit of a rant!
SWK: Not at all, I think it’s a rant that a lot of people have had with themselves and I also think that we should all do our best not to bottle it up and to instead express our current frustrations
MILK: Definitely, it’s been a traumatic time for everyone, even having to deal with your friends emotions at the moment is hard just because people are so unhappy. It’s a collective trauma. Which isn’t the same as the collective trauma experienced by Syrians or those in Yemen, but it is still a trauma. Not being able to see your family, that’s really sad. And I know that I’m in a really fortunate position of having a big family and being able to see people in the park, but for a lot of other people it’s been such an isolating time.
SWK: How did you find the process of re-imagining MILK after the first lockdown? How did you come up with ideas like the Supper Club, for instance?
MILK: We had to mega-brainstorm! The Supper Club format hopefully won’t be done forever but we needed to find a way to make more money because we have to support ourselves in some way. And I have to say, personally I was a bit sniffy about it and didn’t think it would work so I’m delighted to have been proven wrong!
We’re all quite good at that here, coming up with ideas, and maybe some of them end up not being good ones but then we all just get together and think well, at least we tried!
For the Supper Club specifically, we thought about our local area, and while some of the local takeaway places here are amazing, at the same time there isn’t that much variety of cuisines if you compare it to other parts of the country, so we thought it would be nice to be able to provide people with different tastes of the world. Something to get people excited!
SWK: And how did you approach the process of allowing people to sit-in again, when that was allowed?
MILK: It was mostly about the nature of risk and if we were willing to allow people to take that risk. Yes, the takeaway-only restrictions were quite heavy-handed, but at the same time the fact that we were given some personal choice around how to introduce sit-ins meant that we really had to think about if we should be taking those risks. And really we didn’t have much choice anyway because we needed to make more money, but it was still something to think about, if we were comfortable increasing the risk of transmission both for ourselves and for the people who come here.
Personally, I think that for small businesses like us it hasn’t been very fair that we’ve been placed in this position where we’re having to increase the risk of transmission, and that it would’ve been a lot easier if we’d all just been told that we weren’t allowed to do it and were given more money instead so we don’t lose our jobs. And yes, I’m aware that there is no magic money tree, but at the same time, in some ways there actually is! If you look at other avenues, for example, they’ve been making more money than usual. Supermarkets, online shopping, people have been spending more in certain specified ways, so for me it seems like a good answer to say to these companies look, we appreciate the services you provide and don’t want you to move to tax havens or wherever, but at the moment you’re making loads of money and there are others who aren’t able to do so, so please give them some of it! And I know that’s not how economics work, but sometimes when you’re in this position it’s really hard to see why it doesn’t!
SWK: How do you keep yourself motivated?
MILK: I do think we provide a really important service. The women who’ve been working here, loads of them get in touch to ask if they can come back, or if someone can visit them or help them with their benefit forms. We’re needed in a way that makes me quite sad, I mean I would love it if none of the women bothered to get in touch with us because that would mean that they were so busy in their lives and have so much going on. And some of them have! Some of the women have kids, for instance, which keeps them busy, but for a lot of them this place is really important to them, especially alongside other regular groups or places they may be used to going to.
SWK: Best case scenario, what would you like for the future of MILK?
MILK: I miss working with our target demographic of refugee women, as well as the variety of being fully open as well! So if we can safely get back to being able to do that, I will count it as a success!
SWK: It must be really fulfilling to see the women you work with progress through their lives over the years!
MILK: Yes, so much! When we started we thought it would be much more transactional, where we would have people come here and they would improve their language and employability and then would go off, and sometimes that has happened and it’s been really lovely. But most of the time it’s been a much more slow process, where we’ve seen people gradually come out of their shell and increase their confidence in all aspects of life, making pals with people in the cafe and bringing their kids in to meet others or asking for help with school work. And at the end of the day that’s exactly what people should be doing in a community when they need help. And then when we’ve needed help too they’ve maybe offered to give us something back for free, even if it’s just stuff like babysitting, it makes us feel really lucky that we’ve been allowed to see it all blossom.
As part of the MILK Supper Club I had the pleasure to try their Lebanese food! MILK are also currently offering Christmas hampers and Tiffin boxes, info on which can be found on their Instagram!