By Martin MacDonald and Silvija Daniūnaitė
Walking through Groningen’s food market on a Friday morning, it’s easy to let the mind wander and imagine the array of culinary delights that could be conjured up with the ingredients on offer. However, for some organizations in Groningen, food has a far greater potential – to change lives.
Fifty metres down the street is Eeterie de Globe. Although employees at de Globe come from a variety of backgrounds, many of the staff have experienced psychological problems, drug addiction or criminal convictions.
For the last twenty years, de Globe has assisted people with such problems in finding employment. The restaurant, which is run by the charitable organization WerkPro, does not exist to make a profit but measures its success in human terms.
“It’s really important how people treat each other. Most people here have never worked and their life hasn’t gone as planned. They come here to restart and build their lives back,” Bas Veneman told The Scoop.
Bas is a 22-year-old social studies student currently on an internship at de Globe. Despite only working for one year, on a part-time basis, he talks with great affection about the project and the impact that it has.
“A lot of people that come here really don’t see themselves getting better. As time passes, even if it is just little steps, it means a lot to these people,” he said.
De Globe strongly believes that creating a sense of belonging is an important part of the reintegration process for those who come seeking help.
“This is more like a community than a restaurant,” he said.
Sitting in de Globe, this sense of community is immediately apparent. People come and go, but never pass without exchanging a friendly hello with the restaurant’s staff. For Bas, this sense of togetherness is one of the reasons behind de Globe’s enduring success.
“Everybody tries to help each other out because they know what it’s like to have very little,” he said.
Many of the regular diners at de Globe are attracted by the restaurant’s low prices. The restaurant aims to help not only employees but those who may not otherwise be able to afford to eat out.
Employees are paid a small amount to work at de Globe, with the organisation’s primary goal being to impart skills so that staff are equipped to enter the regular job market.
Bas tells us about one particular woman whose experience illustrates what the restaurant can help employees achieve. She had suffered from psychological problems before a placement at de Globe helped her turn her life around.
“She worked here for a year or two, learned a lot about cooking and got a diploma as a cook. Now she works in a day care centre for children and cooks organic meals.”
De Globe has had a similarly profound impact on Bas, who hopes to one day open his own restaurant with the aim of using food to help disadvantaged people.
De Globe is not the only business in Groningen attempting to use the food industry as a force for positive change. Brownies & DownieS is a chain of cafes that employs people with Down syndrome and other learning disabilities. Founder Thijs Swinkels opened the first branch in Veghel 7 years ago and the chain now has 45 Dutch cafes.
Two years ago Nicole Kuper decided to leave a stable job and open a Brownies & DownieS franchise in Groningen, despite being only 23 at the time.
“I always wanted to do something like this, working with people with disabilities,” Nicole told The Scoop.
Nicole currently employs 16 staff with learning difficulties but hopes that one day some employees will be able to find work in regular workplaces. The venture has been so successful that there is currently a waiting list for potential employees.
For Nicole, the most satisfying aspect of her job is to see her employees developing as people, whilst also gaining skills for the future.
“It makes me very proud and they are proud of themselves as well,” she said.
One particular employee illustrates how transformational the experience of working here can be. When the young girl first came to Nicole she claimed to be too scared to face customers. “Now whenever someone opens the door, she runs to them and wants to help,” Nicole beams.
“There is this idea that people with learning difficulties cant’ work, they can’t do anything,” said Nicole.
As we discuss the preconceptions employers have about people with learning difficulties, Madelief, a 20-year-old waitress with Down syndrome, stops by to explain her experience of working in Brownies & DownieS.
“I’ve been here from the start and it’s super nice,” said Madelief, with the aid of Nicole’s translation. “It was difficult to listen at the start and explaining the brownies to customers was the hardest part,” she added.
According to Nicole, the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive and customers are supportive and understanding. She is, however, adamant that she wants people to return because of the quality of the experience, not out of sympathy. The cafe is a wonderfully relaxing place to spend time and the ambiance is matched by the delicious biscuit that accompanies our cup of coffee.
Both Eeterie de Globe and Brownies & DownieS set out to assist members of society who face barriers in finding meaningful work and developing as individuals. The groups that these organizations support may be different, but they share a passion for proving that the food industry can be a vehicle for improving society, one bite at a time.