Laure Misse

Après un master en commerce international et un mastère spécialisé en Communications, Laure débute sa carrière en agence de communication à Paris.

Social Bite is a social enterprise cafe aiming to build a collaborative movement to end homelessness in Scotland. When Alice Thompson and Joshua Littlejohn started Social Bite in 2012, it was just one Cafe in Edinburgh. But Alice and Joshua knew from the start they wanted to do build a strong brand to make a real difference in people’s lives. In five years, Social Bite has expanded rapidly to become a sandwich shop chain, competing with high street brands, and a restaurant (called Home). The ability of Social Bite to raise funds is probably one of the reasons for its expansion. We had the chance to interview Alice Thompson, Co-founder of Social Bite, to find out more about this success story.

What is the story behind Social Bite?

My Co-founder, Joshua, and I used to run an event business and we had an event called the Scottish Business Award. We wanted to invite Nobel Peace prizewinner, Prof. Muhammad Yunus, from Bangladesh, to be our key speaker. We spend spent a long time trying to convince him to come but at the time we were 19 and 23 and nobody knew who we were. Eventually, we managed to get a 5 minutes appointment with him. We went to Bangladesh to meet him but it turned out he could not do the speech anyway because he had other commitments. So, as we had 4 days to spend in Bangladesh, we explored his projects. Seeing his social businesses made us want to come back to Scotland and do something different: something that would make a positive impact on the community. This idea perfectly matched both our personalities.

At the beginning, another person, called Lucie joined the project. Her parents owned a successful event company and they bought an event from us. This has been an incredible opportunity for us to move forward with our project, giving us the capital and the time we needed to open our first shop. Then, Lucie decided to focus on other projects. Joshua and I continued to develop the brand to what it is now.


We opened our first shop in August 2012 on Rose Street in Edinburgh. Today, we have two shops in Edinburgh (Rose Street and Shandwick Street), two corporate concessions in Edinburgh as well which means that we have the catering right for a large office block, two shops in Glasgow (St Vincent Street and Bothwell Street), one shop in Aberdeen (Union Street), one central kitchen in Livingston and one head office.

What challenges did you face to open your first shop?

One of the challenges was to find the best location on the high street. We wanted to be where our competitors, high-end brands like Prêt à manger, Greggs or Subway were. Even if it was just one shop, we wanted it to look like a polished brand that you could come to every day. But you can’t get a space off Princess Street (Edinburgh’s main street) unless you have a huge credit history with over £2 million a year. So finding the right location was a big challenge. However, we were lucky enough to find a space on Rose Street. It was actually not as good when we took it. But by the time we were ready to launch our shop, Patisserie Valérie, a cake chain, had opened in the same street. It was good news because it made the street look more attractive.

Today, you are competing with high street brands. How did you get there?

Since the beginning, we had that attitude that it was not going to be a small one-off cafe. We made sure the branding looked very corporate. We wanted Social Bite to look like a shop that could be opened somewhere else. Besides, we communicated on our social mission. We made clear that we were giving profits away and that by coming to us customers could contribute to something better. Our social mission attracted the local press and then the national press. I think the branding and the way we dealt with the press helped us competing with high-end brands.


What is the unique concept of Social Bite?

When we first opened on Rose Street, the idea was to run the business like any other lunch shop. The only difference is that profits will be given to charities.

But, there was a homeless guy outside the shop and we started being friendly with him. Sometimes we offered him a free soup or a free drink because it was November and it was cold. After a while, we started employing him to do the dishes. Then, one day he said he had a brother that was also homeless and would like to work for us. We employed him as well and then they had friends who also wanted to work… And we thought that employing homeless people should be part of our business model. From that day forward, we decided that at least ¼ of all our employees should come from a homeless background.


Besides, we thought about the food being thrown away at the end of the day (because it is part of the legislation) and we decided that we would not dispose of good food. So, we registered Social Bite as a charity and we started opening the doors at the end of every day and let people take the food that was left. Later on, we thought we should offer the opportunity to our customers to pay upfront for homeless people so they wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the day to eat. And then we launched crazy funding campaigns (see below) so we will not have to say “no” to anybody.


How do you recruit and train homeless staff?

We have about 100 employees and about 35 of those are in vulnerable situations: living in temporary accommodation or in hostels.

Recruitment started with one guy, to his brother and then we hired a couple of their friends that were living on the street. It was not until we moved to Glasgow that we realised it was not an effective way to recruit because we had no contact and peer-to-peer recommendations. So, we got in contact with an association called Street Soccers Scotland, which operates in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and we asked them if any of their guys were ready for employment. We also run evening events were homeless people can come to the shop and have a hot meal, cooked specially for them by the chef that makes all the food for the shop. They can spend a few hours and meet other charities. These events are also a good way to meet people that are in vulnerable situations and that might be ready to take the next step.

We started training people in the kitchen because one of our guys, who started to work in the shop, said being in front of customers was too much pressure for him. Besides, in the kitchen, people learn useful skills that they can also use outside work, such as how to put food together. Our central production kitchen is a great place for training. We have seen guys, who started making basic sandwiches, to get excited about doing a curry from leftovers and have everyone try it. It is amazing to see this kind of progress.


Why have you decided to open a restaurant (HOME)?

This was the next step for Social Bite. We had homeless employees that needed a place to go to upgrade their skills and learn with a chef how to make fine dining. Besides it is in line with our ethos, which is that everyone should be treated as equal. We wanted to open a restaurant where homeless people could come and be served like any other customer. So every Monday, they can come and have a nice dinner in a restaurant. Diners can pay upfront for these meals.


How to make sure the business remains profitable?

In order to make sure that the company stays profitable, we set a board of directors. We now have amazing people who ran successful businesses in Scotland or Nationwide. They are like ours advisors and they look at our finances. They challenge Joshua and me to make sure Social Bite goes in the right direction. We are also registered as a charity so we have a board of trustees who ensure that the money we raise is being used accordingly to our social mission.

December was a busy month for Social Bite. Could you tell us about your Christmas operations?

The first year we were opened at Christmas time but because our business relies on professionals coming into the shop for lunch and that most offices were closed or people were taking some time off with their kids, we were very quiet. So, in December 2013, we decided to close because we could not afford to stay open and make so little money. But it did not feel right to close the shop around Christmas when it is really cold and when people feel the most excluded from society. As a result, we decided to launch a fundraising campaign on where people can buy Christmas lunch for someone in need but we had no idea it would explode the way it did. About 36,000 people bought a Christmas lunch. From there we decided to do that every year. This year over 75,000 Christmas Dinners and Presents were brought for homeless people, allowing Social Bite to feed people on Christmas Eve and Christmas day in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but also throughout 2018.


Besides, last December, we organised an event called Sleep in the Park. 8,000 people got together for this event although it was probably the coldest night in Edinburgh this year (it was about -6 degrees). We raised £3,6 million that night and the money is going to be used for the Housing First program because, according to a survey from Heriot-Watt University, this model is the most efficient to end the circle of homelessness. The idea is to put homeless people into housing as quickly as possible and then provide assistance to find a job, claim benefits, open a bank account, and treat addiction…

Besides, before Christmas, we gave money to create more shelters and avoid people being sent back on the streets, that is what we call the Social Bite Village.


What are your plans for the future?

Right now we are focusing on Scotland because they have this big campaign to end homelessness in Scotland in the next 5 years. Moreover, the Social Bite model is not perfect yet. There is a lot we need to do to make it sustainable and replicable. If we can get it to a point that we can replicate it, then we will definitely roll out the brand across the UK.

What would you recommend to restaurants that would like to add a social mission to their business?

You will need to be authentic: do it because you are passionate so that passion can come through to your audience. Think outside the box and do not be afraid to push the boundaries.