A Conversation With... Redemption Roasters' Max Dubiel
Last year, nearly half of all adult offenders were caught committing further crimes in the year after they left prison, rising to nearly two-thirds of those who served sentences of less than a year.
There is a blatant problem with regards to rehabilitation in prisons across the UK. A problem that costs the country roughly 15 billion pounds annually. A problem that further complicates the reformation of an overcrowded, under-resourced prison system.
But it seems a small-scale coffee company has the answer...
Redemption Roasters capitalises on niche barista skills and the value of wholesale to give young offenders the chance of a new life. Inmates are offered speciality training in coffee and hospitality in a bid to help them find jobs on release.
More than just training, the company produces a special blend of beans - sold across the country - from a coffee roaster set up in HMYOI Aylesbury. The first of its kind. Intricate knowledge of wholesale solutions for offices, hotels and catering companies and a unique partnership with the Ministry Of Justice has propelled the company to success.
Matter Of Form were honoured to chat with co-founder and Director of Redemption Roasters, Max Dubiel. Already a previous founder of another coffee company, Black Sheep Coffee, Dubiel launched Redemption Roasters with old university friend and fellow cofounder, Ted Rosner, in August 2015.
Since then, the company has partnered with the Ministry Of Justice and witnessed incredible growth. The firm sells coffee roasted in Aylesbury Prison in four coffee shops across central London. In 2018, Redemption Roasters crowdfunded more than £20,000 to launch a coffee-pod range. The facility now roasts up to an impressive three tonnes of coffee beans a week, with plans to open another roastery in the imminent future.
We talk all things coffee, ask what it takes to ensure success and track the next steps for this incredibly innovative social enterprise.
Could you give us an overview of what Redemption Roasters is all about?
Redemption Roasters is the first ‘behind bars’ coffee roastery. We roast all of our coffee in Aylesbury Prison and teach young offenders coffee skills with the aim of helping them find employment on release. We also run four (soon to be five) coffee shops around central London and also have a fast growing wholesale business. We have got about 120 wholesale clients, anything from small bars, restaurants and coffee shops to large offices, hotels and catering companies. They buy our coffee and sometimes employ our graduates, which is great - the state of reoffending is the UK is really bad. In fact, the UK has one of the worst reoffending rates in Europe.
How big is your team now?
In total, 31. This number includes our baristas, education team and office staff. Our office recently moved from the basement of our first shop, into a new building in Bloomsbury.
Where did the idea for Redemption Roasters come from?
We’d previously been in the coffee business, and were offered to lead barista training in a prison. I’d never been to a prison before so it sounded really cool and interesting. We never thought there could be a social element attached to it.
Once we saw the impact our access to specialised skills of the industry could make, we realised the potential. We ended up pitching not just the concept of delivering barista skills but also putting a roastery in a prison, with the name Redemption Roasters. We switched our legacy clients with our previous coffee business over to Redemption Roasters.
The Ministry of Justice published the work we were doing in their Education and Employment Strategy. We had calls from prisons up and down the country saying we also want a roastery. We tend to explain starting a roastery in a prison is quite pricey and complicated, but we could offer an academy teaching barista skills to start with. Essentially a coffee shop in a different way. We have now set up four other barista academies and there are others in the pipeline.
How were you able to fund these projects?
We had an initial coffee business to start with, not a big one, but that’s where some of the initial capital came from. Now, we are a profit-making business so we can grow out of our own cash flow. We have also taken on investment from Angels and two small family offices. We will be raising again in the near future to roll out a second roastery in a very exciting (still secret) prison.
Have you always worked in the coffee industry?
I was originally working in the city - in strategy consulting for Accenture. But I quit my job to start another company called Black Sheep Coffee. I then spun off the wholesale business of Black Sheep into my own company. When the opportunity with the Ministry came along, we started Redemption.
What prompted the move from the consulting industry to coffee?
Not any of the usual horror stories. Accenture was actually a very pleasant place to work: the team was great and very smart. I loved the traveling. But I ultimately wanted to do something with my best friends and build a company from scratch. And that is something you can’t do at Accenture, which is such a huge company. I guess it was the desire to build something from scratch and grow it.
What makes Redemption Roasters the go-to over competitors?
In terms of quality we are on par with the speciality roasters in London. There are between 15 and 25 great roasters in London. They do a really great job, roasting ethically sourced beans to a really high standard. Square Mile for example does an amazing job - we tend to source the similar beans and use the similar (albeit smaller) machinery, but what sets us apart is our really strong corporate social responsibility agenda. We try and turn lives around. We share our knowledge of amazing coffee with those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced?
The biggest challenge has been growth. Definitely. We have pretty much doubled in size in terms of turnover over the last 10 months and are planning to do the same over the next year. So that comes at a cost. It's always tricky.
Another challenge is the market progressing towards speciality coffee. There are the other legacy roasters I mentioned earlier but the mainstream case needs to change.
Then of course Brexit is a challenge. Especially in terms of investors expectations but also in terms of insecurity. Not knowing where retail is going to go. Is there going to be a recession? If we sign a retail site, we will sign it for ten years so if there’s insecurities over the labour force for example, it will be a struggle. But overall we have a very positive outlook.
Do you see remaining in England for the foreseeable future?
What has been the lowest point in creating this business?
Perhaps at the beginning of Redemption Roasters. We had been trying to distribute Black Sheep Coffee wholesale, but also distribute our own brands as well. It was getting increasingly difficult. We kept getting asked what you asked earlier, ‘what is your distinguishing feature?’. And we just didn’t really have an answer, we were just trying to make decent coffee.
Another challenge was when we first started Redemption Roasters with the Ministry Of Justice. Things were moving relatively slowly, with our proposals not getting heard as quickly as we’d like. That was a challenging time because we felt like we were in limbo. And limbo for a small company is not a very satisfying position to be in. Once we got the go-ahead, it was smooth sailing. Our contract - to start a roaster in a prison - was quite unusual, so we could fundraise quite quickly. The team in Aylesbury were really helpful and forthcoming about getting things on the road and having us there quickly.
What are the next steps for you guys?
We need to look at growth from every angle. For wholesale, this means starting another, even bigger roastery in the not too distant future. We will reach capacity quite soon, so hopefully opening another in the next 18 months. It will be an exciting project.
Will this roastery be in a new prison?
We are in talks with a number of prisons, all of which are quite keen to have us there. It’s certainly a nice conversation to have. One is with Aylesbury. But we are in talks with another London prison, perhaps putting a roastery much closer to the shops.
We are also expanding shops: opening a fifth shop in September also in the city. We are looking to open about two to three shops a year going forward.
Last but not least is education. Expanding education, so going into more prisons, but also branching out. This is a really exciting subject for us as this is what really sets us apart. We are in talks with the Home Office, hoping to help them educate some of the guys in immigration detention centres. We are also in talks with a couple of youth centres - it is easy to teach coffee skills to guys who are 16 or even 14. And finally expand into homelessness, as it is a labour force who can become extremely skilled is largely untapped.
In terms of educational resources, where is the training coming from to upskill these inmates?
In Wormwood Scrubs prison, for example, we have a couple of Redemption trainers who work five days a week to deliver a three-week course. It’s about 25-30 hours a week. Starting from the very basic, theoretic things such as where coffee comes from, how it is sourced and how the machinery works. To quite practical and hands-on training around grinding coffee, grind consistency, dosage, how to froth milk, how to maintain a machine, how to clean it. And then branching into wider hospitality skills of customer service, health and safety, how to run your own coffee shop, so on and so forth. We try and keep it as little as possible to a classroom environment, and as much as possible around the coffee machine and serving coffee. It's all very practical.
We try to have a pathway where the guys who have completed the course and taken on work in the prison cafe retain the skills they have learnt. For anyone that works in the coffee industry knows how important the number of coffees you make is. Only as that number gets higher and higher are you a really good barista.
What advice would you give to someone starting a business today?
One really important aspect of starting a business is to build with social purpose. Even if only something small, have it in your vision. Because it sets you apart, gets you attention and works both ways. It isn’t just something good but actually something that can work in your favour. It has made fundraising a completely different exercise for us. Because suddenly we are interesting to a completely different class of investors and something that is extremely rewarding when it works. Seeing a social impact business in action is so wonderful.
It also creates a very loyal workforce in terms of the talent you attract. Some of the guys who apply to work with us are so passionate. They could’ve worked in the city on a higher salary, but they want to work with us because they know we do something cool and transformative.
The message we try to convey is that hiring ex-offenders, disadvantaged youth or people from underprivileged backgrounds works both ways. You have a loyal workforce made of people who soak up knowledge like a sponge. They work so much harder because they have to. And that is something which I have really taken away. You may have people that apply who have had city jobs or studied at the top universities, who are of course hard working, but they come and go. Nowadays the average career is a year and a half. If you train somebody with these skills they will stay with you for much longer and you will get much more out of them. This is one of the lessons I would like to share.
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