At Neal Street Espresso, community and coffee go hand in hand.
In the heart of London's colourful Neal's Yard neighbourhood, one cute and cozy cafe is serving up delicious coffee but there's something else on the menu: Second chances.
Neal Street Espresso (34 Neal Street) looks in many ways like a typical hip London coffee shop. Indeed, it is one. There is a robust menu of flat whites, mochas, and chai tea. You can grab your beverage with oat, almond, or soy milk and add a plump pastry or toasty hot sandwich on the side. The baristas are briskly efficient, foaming milk and taking orders without skipping a beat. In every way, they're just like any other cafe staff but there's a much deeper story here. Neal Street Espresso supports community members who have been part of the penal system and that starts with their staff.
Part of the Manchester-born Message Enterprise Centre, Neal Street Espresso recognizes that, without pragmatic job assistance, people who are struggling to turn their life around after serving a prison sentence are at high risk of recidivism. That's why the cafe hires people who have been incarcerated, pays them a London living wage, and provides job training and mentoring.
I had the chance to speak briefly with staff members during my November 2022 visit and they told me that they're not just focused on providing barista training but also helping staff in their long term goals. This isn't about simply teaching folks how to make a fabulous latte (though I think we can all agree that lattes matters, big time!) It's about giving people the foundation they need to realize a wide variety of professional and personal goals.
This cafe is much more than a feel good story. It's proof that small businesses and social enterprises create meaningful change. The Message Enterprise Centre reports that, nationally, 29% of men and women re-offend within 12 months but at the MEC their rate is just 2%. While researching this piece, I came across another interesting statistic from Redemption Roasters (another cool organization which supports current and former prisoners through coffee roasting in London). They state: "Only 36% of prisoners manage to find work within two years of being released. If prisoners do find employment, they are 50% less likely to return to prison."
Considering the high social and economic costs of re-offending, the idea that crime cycles can be broken with some steaming hot coffee seems almost miraculous but in truth, it's never been about the drinks. Neal Street Espresso is brewing community support and common sense, creating something that serves everyone (and not just tourists or well-to-do Londoners).
To that end, Neal Street Espresso does something that I think should be a part of every cafe. They offer suspended or 'pay it forward' drinks. When you purchase your drink, you can also purchase a second one which is then put in reserve for someone who needs it but cannot afford it. That means people in difficult circumstances are welcome in the space.
So how can visitors to London be a part of what Neal Street Espresso is doing? Pop in and order a cup of coffee, just like I did! If you hadn't read this post (or were a bit sleepy, pre-caffeine), you likely wouldn't think the cafe is different from any other shop. Frankly, I wouldn't have realized they were doing something special if it wasn't for the fact that I was tempted by their cinnamon buns and decided to sit for a while instead of just taking my coffee cup to go. (I know - so on brand for me. Once again, the plot thickens thanks to my love of baked goods!) I was daydreaming in one of the cafe chairs when my eye caught things like the suspended coffee board and I knew I was in the midst of an incredible spot, the ultimate proof that coffee is heart-warming in more ways than one. I know you'll love it just as much as I did.
Neal Street Espresso is a two minute walk from the Covent Garden tube stop and one minute from the cute stores at Neal's Yard. It's closed on Sundays and is card-only (meaning you can't pay with cash, just credit card).
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