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Angela Ireland
of Milk Cafe

"This is the first job where I’ve felt really settled. I have control over what I’m doing, but also we’re trying to affect some change, even if that change is really small."

The charming mismatched crockery and colourful decor inside Milk delightfully illustrates the mix of characters who regularly frequent this community space. On entering to warm sounds of chatter and the clatter of plates being emptied, not to mention the evocative aroma of freshly brewed coffee, the cosy haven was already well worth the seven hour transit from London that I’d undertaken that morning to get there.

Through Milk, Angela and her best friend Gabby Cluness have created a social enterprise which offers valuable employment and skills-learning opportunities to asylum seeking and ethnic minority women in the Glasgow area.

Sampling a much needed and most appreciated flat white, which a fellow customer informs me was produced using beans grown by female coffee growers, I settle at a 60’s style formica table and wait for Angela to finish a couple of orders from the lunchtime rush.

Angela Ireland of Milk Cafe

Can you tell us briefly about your background and what led to the opening of Milk?

I studied English literature at Glasgow University and whilst there I volunteered with a couple of different charities, more to make friends than anything else. In my final year we did an international development project, I went to Nepal and worked with lots of NGO’s. This opened my eyes to thinking that the ‘them and us’ charity model has some issues. I know it’s necessary, but it’s like a helping hand instead of working in tandem with people.

When I graduated I met Gabby working in a restaurant, we went to Mexico, taught English and travelled about trying to decide what to do when we came home. Gabby had wanted to open a cafe for years but it had to be something that had an extra level to it, to put all the money we made back into community projects. When we came back to Glasgow we ended up volunteering with Bridges Programmes which is a mentoring buddy system for refugees and asylum seekers, it opened our eyes specifically to the lack of provisions for women in that situation. This helped us to hone the idea and set our social aims so we set up a company. Last year we opened our cafe.

What have been the main hurdles thus far and what do you think the biggest challenges are?

We set the company up a year before we found our premises. That year was the hardest because we had never owned a cafe before and everyone was giving us their advice about what was the most important factor, whether it was location or size etc.

It took us a full twelve months from registering the business with Companies House to finding premises. It was really hard because we were both working full time plus creating the business plans and networking and trying to meet people. We had a lot of help from a friend who is a solicitor. I would phone him every second day saying ‘we’ve looked at this place, do you know this landlord?’ and because he was working in commercial property in Glasgow at the time he was able to help.

You have a picture of the ideal place in your head and there was a property round the corner with double fronted glass, it was beautiful. We were determined to have it but it’s purpose was as an office building before so it had nothing in it. We didn’t know if it was a good idea but thought, it’ll be fine, we’ll just take furniture from our houses and make it work. In the end it fell through, there were tears and tantrums and we almost gave up. But then our current cafe came on the market. I ended up having a face to face conversation with the owner, explained what we wanted to do and she was really happy. It was already a community space before so she was really pleased that it would remain that way. So actually we were very lucky, we both live around the corner so we don’t have far to go. We are actually part of the community that we’re working with which makes a huge difference.

What are your plans going forward?

We’re ready to expand which is really scary because this has been quite safe. It’s a small space so even if there are two tables in, it’s still quite a nice atmosphere. Also, we’ve got loads of volunteers because we’ve built a community around it. The limitation is that we can’t physically fit any more in on a busy Saturday or Sunday. We’re looking into catering and then possibly into starting a hostel.

The challenges going forward are, I guess, letting go and taking on other members of staff because the dynamic will change. Up until now it’s just been Gabby and I in charge, so trusting other people to come in and fully take control of the business will be hard. We’re quite relaxed about letting people come in and smash about in the kitchen and bake cakes, but now I guess we’re actually going to have to have a ‘board’!

What have been the highlights?

It is genuinely the people we’ve met, we’ve made such great connections with not only volunteers but regular customers. There’s a lad who lives round the corner who comes in for a coffee every morning. We shut over Christmas for a week and he and his friend came in and painted and decorated the place. We don’t take on male volunteers, we have a female focus, so they were like ‘look, this is all we can donate, let us do it’. It was really nice, we are genuinely touched by stuff like that.

Also, people who have seen us on Facebook, customers that come in off the street with bags of teapots and cutlery and stuff. The highlight is the involvement we’ve had from everybody else.

What motivates you?

That’s a difficult one. This is the first job where I’ve felt really settled. I have control over what I’m doing, but also we’re trying to affect some change, even if that change is really small.

The motivation is in being able to allow people to meet each other and experiment with food. Allowing people to actually make mistakes and to experiment and not get annoyed if they waste £10 worth of ingredients on a cake that doesn’t work.

Do you bake as well?

Yeah, we do everything here. It’s busy and the kitchen’s about 2m x 1m, sometimes on a Saturday and Sunday it’s really fun, it gets manic. Sometimes I think you can’t hear me behind the fridge door so I’ll have a little rant!

What does success look like to you?

It’s definitely not monetary. Obviously the money factor is important because the more we generate the longer we will be able to survive and the more we will be able to deliver on the aims of our projects. But, for me, it’s actually seeing people grow in confidence and develop friendships.

There was a study done by the Refugee Council which highlighted all the issues facing refugees and asylum seekers, be they isolation, lack of confidence, provisions, English language skills or depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. We’ve been very lucky to see this space look after itself and create a positive environment for these people.

What characteristic do you most admire in others?

Kindness. People who are genuinely kind, I think that’s great. I don’t like mean and nasty people.

When you’re having a bad day what cheers you up?

Friends. Either a good customer, or when somebody funny comes in and cheers me up when I’ve had a long day.

What are the biggest sacrifices you’ve made to pursue this?

Our time I guess. The hours we do here can be really long. We don’t do as much outside of these four walls but we do stuff here instead. Whereas once I may have gone to a drawing class in the city, we now host one here which is amazing. We have an open mic music night, a drawing group and a supper club and the kids come and play and I can eat cake and drink coffee all day and it’s all with my best pal.

Having a creative space with all these things on the go and being able to put on events must be really nice?

It is, we had a cast of twelve doing a play here once, it was ridiculous. They were Russian and came over to use the space. They performed inside and the audience were outside behind the glass, it was really cool.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

My brother went to University first. He studied at Glasgow and he said that he regretted not doing enough, he didn’t join very many clubs, he didn’t make that many friends. So when I went to University he told me to get involved in everything that I could, so I did. From volunteering, through to cheerleading and Taekwondo and other ridiculous things.

What piece of advice would you give to your 21 year old self?

Again, give everything a try, it will work out. I think I was really panicked about career focus. You come out of high school and you’re asked ‘what are you going to do at University?’, will that lead to a career? but in fact, you should use University as an excuse to ask questions. Don’t worry that you have to be an English teacher because you have an English degree, or a Librarian because you studied books because it doesn’t work like that, it’s an opportunity to meet people and expand your mind and your views.

Is there anything you couldn’t live without?

Coffee. I had to do a medical thing a couple of years ago and I had to give up coffee for four months, I actually felt great afterwards but i fell off the wagon immediately. The first three weeks I had headaches, I was so angry, i don’t know why i started again.

Is there a motto or principle that you live by?

Yeah, i just got into Yoga, so I’m trying to live by some Yoga mottos. I thought it was all about the downward dog but it’s not, it’s a whole philosophy.

Really it’s common sense but, in essence, be kind, be patient, be good to yourself, you know all that kind of stuff. Quite often I wouldn’t hesitate about drinking a bottle of wine and feeling horrendous the next day, but it would take much more thought to book myself into a Yoga class. When I do though, I come out feeling really amazing. It’s funny how people’s minds work.

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