Going to jail is something that most of us fear and yet can barely fathom. Prisons, in most countries, are these heavily fortified compounds that shield the outside world from murderers, robbers, rapists and anyone else who is deemed unfit to be part of society. Often, however, people still go to jail for the most trivial things such as possession of small amounts of drugs. While there is certainly a purpose to the correction system, in most western countries, prisons merely serve one end: to punish.
Much has been said about the Norwegian approach that lets inmates freely come and go, get a job and helps them to reintegrate into society after their term has been served in order to prevent them from reoffending. One of the main reasons why people reoffend is because they are marginalised and shunned by society, find it difficult if not impossible to get a job or suitable accommodation and often end up back on the streets. According to Crisis.co.uk, reoffending costs the British economy more than £13 billion annually.
Then there is the other side to the coin. In an age of severe staff shortages across almost every industry, ex-convicts are still largely ignored by potential employers who do not want to give jobs to former criminals. Newground Coffee from Oxford is part of a growing number of British companies that is bucking the trend by focusing precisely on this group of people and offering them a path out of crime and homelessness.
Based in Oxford, Newground Coffee was set up by Joel Grates with the mission to source exceptional coffees from small farms and to help ex-convicts to start a new life by providing them with training and job opportunities.
After a popular first Coffeevine feature in 2020, Newground is returning to our monthly coffee subscription in October with a delicious natural-processed Ugandan coffee from Zuzuka Bora and a few days ago, I caught up with Joel to learn more about his company’s noble mission and future plans.
THE COFFEEVINE (TC): “We find ourselves in a very different reality today than what we were in two years ago. When we first worked together, we were still in the final months of the Brexit transition phase, the pandemic was raging and people were stuck at home trying to find things to spend their extra cash on. How have the past 24 months been for you guys?”
Joel Grates (JG): “There have been a couple of challenges for us in the past two years. We’ve been in a bit of a consolidation period I could say. We really built out our wholesale and webshop businesses and these two have now become pretty solid sources of revenue for us, so much so that we’re now able to start looking at what’s next.”
TC: “Oh, that sounds exciting. What is that?”
JG: “Well, that was a bit of a leading response, wasn’t it? We plan to open a really cool new concept space in the center of Oxford early next year. Our goal for it to be one of the best new openings anywhere in Europe in 2023. We want this to be a really unique experience for our customers and Oxford is a great place to do this in.
When we designed our roastery, we wanted people to be able to literally jump into coffee. Our customers can sit behind the bar and watch our baristas at work, for example, and the whole design was meant to be open and inviting. We want the new space to have some of those elements as well.”
TC: “This sounds super exciting. I hope I get to see it next year. So, let’s talk about the social responsibility aspect of your business, which I find super fascinating and admirable. Your whole ethos is built around working with small communities of coffee farmers and helping them flourish while, at the same time, you also have a commitment to providing training and job opportuities to ex-convicts. Tell me more about that.”
JG: “That’s right. We’re super passionate about coffee but the beating heart of what we do is to provide training and job opportunities to people coming out of the criminal justice system. We believe there is a number of barriers for people coming out of prison and trying to reintegrate into society. The biggest is employment.
The facts speak for themselves really. An ex-convict who finds employment within twelve months of their release is 2/3 less likely to reoffend than someone who cannot find work.
You know, there is a lot of judgement in the world and we firmly believe in second chances. 95% of employers will put your application in the ‘no’ pile if you tick the box that says you have a criminal record. We really want to help change this. Not everyone who’s been to prison is innately bad. There are people out there who are stuck in a vicious cycle of reoffending because that is the only way they can survive.”
TC: “I have worked with another roaster before who has a similiar mission, Old Spike, and I’m familiar with the likes of Redemption Coffee Roasters who are also helping people coming out of the criminal justice system. At the same time, I don’t really know of any other companies who do that. Maybe it’s my own lack of knowledge of other industries but is specialty coffee particularly well suited for this kind of approach?”
JG: “I think it’s well-suited because the coffee industry is quite progressive and liberal, and generally welcoming to anyone regardless of who they are. At the same time, coffee offers an opportunity to build a successful business with great products and services generating decent profits and to tackle a social injustice or tackle an environmental problem or whatever it might be.
I believe that consumers also expect more from brands these days and that companies will have to consider how they plan to give back to society at large. We don’t necessarily boast about our social program in marketing campaigns but for our customers, it’s certainly a cherry on top.”
TC: “To how many people have you given an opportunity so far?”
JG: “We’ve provided around 9.000 hours of living wage employement to a number of different people. Living wage is different from minimum wage in the sense that it provides a more realistic pay for people to live off. So far, no one we have worked with is back in prison. This is really the biggest KPI (key performance indicator) for us. So, whether they stay with us or move on to another job elsewhere, we feel that we did something important for them if they manage to stay on course and away from reoffending.
“Not everyone who’s been to prison is innately bad. There are people out there who are stuck in a vicious cycle of reoffending because that is the only way they can survive.”
Anyway, it’s still early days and we have big plans such as the opening of our new physical space and the launch of our new training pilot. In coffee, we have a huge shortage of qualified staff and at Newground we only have a finite number of job opportunities. That is why we are working with our wholesale partners to provide additional placements.”
TC: “This feels so timely. Everywhere you look, people are desperate for staff and there is this whole workforce coming out of prisons every year that everyone seems to ignore because they think they’re all bad people. It’s important that we try and get rid of that stigma, isn’t it?”
JG: “Exactly! One of our dreams is to change that narrative. Not just to help people find work but also to change the policy at large and remove some of the stumbling blocks that don’t help.”
TC: “Let’s talk about your coffee. Apart from the fact that your packaging looks really beautiful, you also work hard at leveraging your impact at origin by working closely with selected farmers such as the people behind this Ugandan coffee from Zuzuka Bora. We also had a Ugandan coffee from you in 2020. Tell me more about this relationships with Uganda.”
JG: “Indeed. This project is actually part of why we exist in the first place. The guy who runs the project, Dave Bishop, used to work at Oxfam in Oxford and I knew him from his time here. Some years ago, he moved to Uganda and he realised that where he was living was ideal for growing coffee. Not only that but that the region was traditionally a coffee growing region but that this knowledge had been lost due to a long civil war.
He very quickly set up this new project to help bring back this expertise and to help farmers find a new source of income. The coffee itself is sensational! He’s put in so much hard work on the ground to set up the right facilities and to help people regain the knowledge that was lost. There are now hundreds of farmers who are cultivating their lands to grow exceptional coffees and earning more than they ever have before.
A few years ago, he reached out and said ‘these coffees here taste absolutely great and they’re helping to fight poverty. Wouldn’t it be great if this story didn’t end at export? Would you consider doing something with these coffees in the UK?’
That was one of the calls to action that really got us going. I love the idea that we can work with something that is helping to provide a better life for families. We’re proud of the work that the farmers do and our job is to showcase it in the best possible way.”
TC: “What is it like to be based in Oxford as a specialty coffee business? When I was in high school, I lived there for two years but back then, there was no specialty coffee to speak of really. I am sure it has changed a lot. You’re right on the doorstep of London too, which is probably the city with the best coffee culture in Europe. How much room do you have to grow in Oxford and is it already quite competitive?”
JG: “We’re in a place where the coffee scene is maturing and quite competitive, yes. Five years ago, it would not have been on top of anyone’s specialty coffee destination bucket lists but we’re all pushing each other on a bit and opening another new space in the center of town will definitely help with that. We’ve definitely got some healthy competition here.”
TC: “Where do you want to see Newground go in the near future?”
JG: “Well, apart from the new concept we want to open here, I think we also want to expand beyond our borders. Maybe open something in London. Other than that, we want to continue to consolidate and look after our wholesale customers and provide more opportunities to people coming out of the criminal justice system.”
TC: “Do you share best practices with other companies that have a similar approach to reintegration?”
JG: “Yes. We learn a lot from other companies and enterprises in the UK who are helping in their own ways. For example, there is a company called Timpson that currently offers around 1.000 job opportunities to people who are either in or about to leave the prison system. They’re big advocates for all employers trying to do this. There is definitely a support network and great people around us who we can learn from.”
TC: “Keep on doing this great work and I’m excited to have you back in our box next month.”
This coffee is part of our upcoming October 2022 Coffeevine box that also features other delicious coffees from Rush Rush and Elbgold. To choose your ideal box and get in on the fun, just pop over to our shop now.