Posted by: bevmeldrum | August 16, 2007

Community Cafes Aren’t Always The Easy Answer

Museum’s Journal 

Yesterday I was interviewed by Museum’s Journal, the magazine of the Museum Association. They are doing an article on developing social enterprise in museums.

Museums, like many other voluntary organisations and charities, have been doing income generating activity for many years. When was the last time you went into a museum that didn’t have a shop or a cafe?

One of the questions I was asked was what would I suggest for museums that were looking to develop social enterprise activity and increase their earned income.

It was a really interesting question. The easy answer would be to say that a cafe and a shop seem to work well in other museums so why not try those. A community cafe, in particular, is often what people first think of when they are looking for opportunities to generate income in their organisation. However, it’s not as easy at that. Getting a cafe right, and financially sustainable, is incredibly difficult.

I’ve worked with a number of different community cafes over the years and I have to say that very few ever actually become financially sustainable. Of course, not all community cafes are aiming to move beyond volunteer labour – the benefit to the community of having a cafe is often seen as outweighing any financial cost to the organisation.

Three key issues that community cafes need to consider:

  1. Footfall – just how many people pass by or come into your premises everyday? It is much easier to persuade people who walk past to come into the cafe, than trying to get people to come out of their way to come in.
  2. Staffing – will you use volunteers or paid staff or a mixture of the two? As volunteers are working on a voluntary basis you need to consider that none of them are required to do anything, so may not always be able to be relied upon. If you take on staff the financial success of the cafe becomes even more important.
  3. Products and Pricing – what will your cafe provide to make it stand out alongside the other cafes and eating places in the area? You will need to balance prices according to what people will pay and what you need to cover your costs. Remember that if you have staff you need to pay, you will be paying them during the quiet times when no-one is in the cafe as well as the busy times when you are rushed off your feet so the numbers have to add up.

As for the museums, cafes may work well but there are plenty of other opportunities using the skills and resources within each organisation. By definition they are experts in their particular area and the challenge is to find clients who will pay for that expertise.

One of my favourite examples of this is the SS Robin docked in Docklands, London.

It is the world’s oldest complete steamship and has been completed restored and turned into a heritage centre and art gallery. Alongside of these activities they run photography classes that they charge for. A great way to use their particular skills and generate income at the same time.


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