Kath Baron, 51, works at The Kitchen cafe in Bolton.
A keen animal advocate, Kath’s love of animals is expressed through her passion for making healthy, vegan food and via her regular efforts to share that passion in her local community. She has two rescue dogs – 16.5 year old Eli the English Bull Terrier, and 4 year old Collie Fluffy Puff .
Kath – have you always had an interest in food?!
Yes! But I became more interested in healthy food when I had my children. They are 28, 26, and 19 now but when they were born I wanted to do everything I could to make sure I didn’t feed them rubbish.
I began growing organic vegetables in my garden and then as part of a community shared allotment project, Me and people I knew set up a food co-op, where we could club together and buy foods at a cheaper price. We formed as a community group which then meant we were able to apply for grants to put on cooking classes in the local area.
Tell us more about this group – what is it called?
From the allotments and various organisations, groups and individuals working together an independent community initiative was formed called The Green House project. It was run by a committee of volunteers and was set up to build a base for local projects, there was an emphasis on environmental sustainability and getting Bolton’s diverse communities to work together.
This project supported and was involved in a great deal of community projects. From around 2004 I was employed as a community development worker and was later self-employed, but 2003 was a time when a lot of refugees and asylum seekers were coming in to the country. There was a lot of negative publicity and misinformation, which was leading to prejudice and towards them.
The Green House project decided to run some classes, which would show support for asylum seekers – like cooking classes looking at healthy eating and language classes. These developed into the students cooking foods from their own countries to talking and sharing stories. This then went on to help improve our other regular healthy eating classes, where we invited guest cooks from many different backgrounds, who shared new and exciting recipes with participants.
Our classes were very mixed and they were a great way of getting the people who were new to this country interacting with the good folk of Bolton!
When you say these were ‘Healthy Eating’ classes what do you mean?
Healthy food to me and the other members of The Green House project always means vegetable based. The classes we hold, the catering we do for community events, annual events like World of Food etc were always veggie/mostly vegan. This wasn’t only because we want to promote vegetable based food in the diet but it also means everyone is able to eat it and no one is excluded!
Does The Green Project still exist?
Yes, it does but it is now renamed as The Mutual Aid Centre. It is run by a voluntary management committee and I am still involved with them. Things did change pretty dramatically for all community projects around 2009/10. Up until then, there had been quite a lot of grants available to community groups such as ours, but the Conservatives austerity measures put an end to that. This has had a big impact on what community-led organizations can do.
It just so happened that around the same time many of the asylum seekers we had met, worked with, and become friends with though the project got their ‘leave to remain’. We got together and realised we had a common goal – we wanted to open our own healthy eating cafe/catering business. There were about 6 of us in this group but we also had such a lot of support from friends, volunteers and other community projects
Once you’d decided to open your own business, what did you do next?
The very first thing we did was constitute as a community group, then we went on a course at Trafford Hall near Frodsham called ‘Setting up community cafes’. We were shown operational guidelines, and things like pricing, equipment, and menus etc. There was also a small grant of around £2000 attached to this course for groups who wanted to develop a community café.
We went on various free business courses to find out about how to go about setting up a business and the various things we needed to look at to do this.
We then looked at our structure and got support from the co-operative hub. We worked with co-operative business consultants and they supported us to choose a structure incorporate, develop a business plan and develop as a co-operative.
Funding was the next thing to tackle. We approached Allan Lane foundation (the founder of Penguin Books) and received £7,000. The local housing authority Bolton at Home gave us £5000. We had history of work with them with our cooking and language classes, allotment projects, and asylum seekers integration work. We also received a grant called ’empty shop grant’ from the council. This £6,000 grant helped us with legal fees and to renovate the property we intended to use.
You must have been really pleased with these grants, but surely that wasn’t enough to start the business?
Well no, it wasn’t. We were still a long way short but luckily for us The National Lottery had just started a grant called ‘Local Food’. The application was hard work, and we then had to wait for 6 months to hear if we’d been successful – we couldn’t try and start things up before then as they wouldn’t give grants to any up and running project. It was a long wait because we all wanted to get going on the project!
Was it all worth it in the end?!
Yes, it was! We received a £70,000 grant from the National Lottery. We now finally had everything in place to go full steam ahead into opening our healthy eating cafe – The Kitchen.
How did you feel?
It was a great feeling. Up until this point everyone had worked on a voluntary basis, (we had put in a lot of time and effort!), but we didn’t mind at all. Myself and a lot of people I know have always done that to be honest – if you believe in something and you want to make a change for the better then you don’t have to be paid to do it.
Now that everything was in place I really felt like we had achieve our goal, and all our hard work had finally paid off. We were even able to pay ourselves a wage!!
How long did it take you to open The Kitchen?
We started doing up the property in May. We did as much of the work as we could ourselves and with the help of friends, but we got trades people in for the essential stuff. We opened in September – we weren’t really ready but we were itching to get going, and some things you just have to learn as you go along! We didn’t have a till or a coffee machine!
How would you describe The Kitchen?
We are a not for profit workers co-op, which is very important to us as this is a democratic business model where everyone has an equal say in how the business is run.
Our aim is to bring tasty, healthy, affordable, vegetable based food to everybody.
How long have you been open now, and how are things going?
We’ve been open for 6 years now, and we’ve really developed and grown in that time. We have a wide variety of dishes, and we change our mains and soups menu for every day over every month.
We have lots of regulars and always get great feedback about our food. People say they are glad we are here, compliment the food and environment, and they take an interest in the food we produce – it’s origins and ingredients . We are often told we should produce recipe books!
Is The Kitchen involved in any other projects?
Yes. We still have links to The Mutual Aid Centre and community allotments and garden projects. They are happy to take our vegetable waste to compost and give us any surplus nice veg they have grown. What they give us often influences the cafe menu, and also helps us keep things affordable. Now if we are offered excess veg we can always redirect it to The Bolton Real Junk Food project. They have a café which make great meals from decent, edible food that would otherwise have been thrown away.
The Kitchen also still runs healthy eating classes in the community, and caters for all sorts of events and parties. Our food is always veggie/vegan and everyone is always very happy with it!
Do people from these classes ever want to get involved with the cafe?
Yes, all the time, and we really encourage it. If someone has a really good recipe we often ask them if they’d like to cook it for our menu. The people are just as important as the recipe. They often have to adapt the recipe so that animal products aren’t used; most people find this a very interesting thing to learn about.
Recently we had a Japanese woman who had a great recipe for miso soup. She used fish in her recipe but we pointed out that for a vegan meal that wouldn’t be possible, so she brought in some kelp stock instead which undoubtedly made a much better soup!
Do you have any plans for the future?
Well, the cafe will continue to run as it is, but what we would really like to do is develop into some kind of a convenience store/grocers shop. We are about to hold a meeting with volunteers, friends, and customers, who have expressed an interest, and we’ll discuss our ideas and how things can move forward. Ideally, we would like to open something that is next door or at least nearby to the cafe, and which compliments it. It may sell products that the cafe uses, allow you to taste and buy ingredients; we may product recipes from the cafe. Opening hours would be more convenient so it is more accessible for people who work 9-5 days.
You have put such a lot of work into this project, mostly unpaid, and put in lots of extra hours – why do you do it?
Initially, it was important because I think people should have more control over their food, how it is produced, and what they eat. I want to help make where I live a better place, and I enjoy working with people from different backgrounds and cultures. We could have set up The Kitchen in a more trendy and profitable area and maybe become rich(!) but that is not what is important. In Bolton we are making a difference – when we set up there was nothing else like us in the area, and customers frequently tell us that they wouldn’t eat so well if we weren’t here. They have learned about new and healthy foods – some have even decided to go veggie!
I truly believe that a vegetable-based diet is a healthier one, so promoting vegetable in our tasty menu is an easy way to show people how it can be done. I hope that people decide to eat more vegetables and less meat as a result of it – they may even realise that it is not so important to have meat in your diet at all.
We had one customer that came in most week days for 5 years. One day it came up in conversation that she wasn’t a vegetarian, she just came to the cafe because the food was so healthy, tasty, and good. I was so surprised but so happy that she had chosen our food over meaty meals.
So, does The Kitchen have a real community feel about it?
Yes. It is very sociable and we are all very approachable – you can talk to us, if we can’t help we can redirect you to other groups who can. We have a lot of written information available and customers find that very useful. We can give advice to and help people who want more information about a healthy diet and/or are thinking about going vegetarian or vegan.
Do you think you’ll always be interested in promoting healthy food?
Yes I do. I went veggie at 13 years old for a year, and then tried it again at 16 – I was cooking proper meals for myself then so it was a lot easier! At 17 I decided to go vegan, and have been ever since. I really believe this is the healthiest life style there is – I would never have fed my 3 children vegan food otherwise! I do also believe it is wrong to kill animals just because we like the taste of them. Almost all meat-producing animals are intensely factory farmed which is unnatural, and unhealthy – for them and us!
At the café we love to show people how simple home cooked food can taste, and how easy and affordable is can be. I feel The Kitchen and our community classes do this, but what they also do is encourage people to cook.
When I became vegan I had to develop my own cooking skills but through working on food projects I have found a lot of people don’t cook anymore! They might never have been taught, have other priorities in their life, are too busy, or just got out of the habit.
I think taking control of what you eat and the way your food is produced is very important for individuals, society, and the planet and I want to do all I can help other people recognise this and as a bonus improve their own health!
http://www.uk.coop/the-hive/ for support setting up a co op