The neighbourhood neo-canteen using social inclusion as its prime ingredient for local change

In the back alleys of Ixelles, in between the Place Blyckaerts and Place Jourdan neighbourhoods, a new-age canteen has quietly, for the past year and a half, been developping a vision that places sustainable, local food on the same, equal footing as social inclusion and cohesion. Underpinned by a belief in the power of the local economy to weave meaningful links between the community it purports to serve, Refresh distinguishes itself by its intent to lower the barrier to entry to durable and ethical living, with one overriding area of focus: the people. We sit down with Laurent Dennemont, current coordinator at Refresh, to talk ambitions, approaches and making sustainable living accessible to even the most disenfranchised whilst setting them up for the future.

Visuals by Pauline Colleu (c).

The clock points to just around noon when I walk through the wooden doors of Refresh, a local canteen nestled in the backstreets of Ixelles and which just recently celebrated its one year anniversary. Greeted by Laurent Dennemont, coordinator of the project since January 2016, I grab a seat by the window, an uninterrupted view of the vegetable garden extending in front of me. The lunchtime fuss is palpable, with a first batch of clients, for the most part neighbours, waiting for their serving of the day’s suggestions. And, amidst the hustle and bustle, Dennemont takes some time to walk me through the initiative’s ambitions and early beginnings, whilst at the same time keeping an eye on operations.

“In a nutshell, the idea was to use food as the valuable social tool it is.”

“At the beginning, there was this idea that grew out of the desire to combine social and ecological concerns about food,” starts Dennemont, who concedes that if indeed his neighbourhood canteen is first and foremost know as a place that primes sustainable food, to the neighbourhood and its residents it is better-known for the myriad of side-projects, for the most part social in nature, that serve to contribute to reinforcing local, social cohesion. Indeed, people usually associate concerns for sustainability with a privileged few, with the underlying understanding being that social emergencies cannot be addressed through ecological or even qualitative concerns. “Which is a pity,” he continues, before proclaiming that Refresh was born precisely to illustrate how best to reconcile these two approaches – sustainability and social inclusion – through a global vision of food, from production right through to stock management and knowledge transmission. Put simply, Dennemont believes that the project’s fundamental aim is to demonstrate how a focus on local and sustainable food can be an engine for the Region’s economy through the stimulation of new skills and the creation of new jobs. “In a nutshell, the idea was to use food as the valuable social tool it is,” he sums up.

At the moment, Refresh hosts a handful of sister projects that each contribute towards nurturing its vision where sustainable food combines with a solid work ethics. The urban farming section, for instance, is maintained by the neighbourhood association. The transformation and transit corner of unsold foods is mostly ran by local partners. Workshops and animations are held regularly, with a special emphasis on training and occupational integration. At first glance, it seems as though every layer of the social ecosystem is catered to.

“As much as we want to be a neighbourhood meeting point, we also want to be a legitimate and credible training center that is renown in the culinary sector.”

“It had to go full circle! How could we defend the right to affordable food for our customers if we didn’t make an effort ourselves on how we recruited our kitchen staff?” he asks. With its inherent desire to stimulate the creation of social links and inclusion, the need to integrate a coherent occupational integration strategy to its overall approach came naturally, which in turn perfectly placed it to benefit from public investment as well as a close, working relationship with the Commune’s other social partners (think local welface centers, job centres and socially-geared non-profits). “What they do is put us in relation with people who are in need of a job in order to recover their rights to unemployment benefits. At Refresh, we offer them an employment contract called Article 60 which is something similar to a paid internship that will allow them to get their unemployement rights back but also will prepare them for another potential job in the culinary industry.” Depending on their age, employees stay with Refresh for one to two years, a period during which they have the opportunity to experience every facet of the restaurant business, from cooking to customer service. “Our role at Refresh is to help certain people get back on their feet through professional training. We accompany and train them so they’re fully equipped to pursue a career somewhere else at the end of their training at Refresh,” Dennemont pursues, before adding “As much as we want to be a neighbourhood meeting point, we also want to be a legitimate and credible training center that is renown in the culinary sector. Our employees must leave our kitchen with a various set of skills that they can use while seeking for another job.”

Needless to say that the management style needed to oversee such a peculiar business couldn’t be drawn out of a standard text book, and had to be adapted to the context. “People who work here come with very different backgrounds. Some deal with particularly challenging situations. Money troubles, health problems or even homelessness are common occurences we have to face with them one way or another. It seemed impossible for me to say, “Hey, just forget about your problems for now and let’s tackle some work together! You’ll see, it will be fun!” It was crucial for me to investigate new ways of managing people and tasks, using a more human-scaled approach.” Little by little, Dennemont tried to involve the employees as much as he could, by eventually bringing some collective intelligence impulses to the canteen’s routine. “We’ve been followed by a group of coaches for a while now and it has helped us handle things collectively. Of course, not everything can be managed with this approach. I have to choose which decisions can be made together as a group and when I have to step up as the coordinator to make sure the project evolves in the right direction. Finding the right balance is an everyday exercise but has turned out to be incredibly rewarding,” he reveals. One aspect that’s required particular attention, for example, is employee absenteeism. “For a while we struggled with a big deal of absenteeism. Employees weren’t showing up on time or at all and we had to come up with last-minute tricks to make it through the lunch service.” Even though Refresh hosts a series of parallel activities to its core business, keeping the restaurant up and running, on a very grounded level, is essential as it remains its main showcase and one of its sources of outcome – if the canteen fails, the entire project fails too. Opening up management concerns to the whole team helped Dennemont discover this issue was the symptom of something more important. He realised Refresh’s entire vision and purpose weren’t all that clear to everyone which resulted in employees not feeling particularly engaged or concerned. “It’s obvious the restaurant is the first wheel of Refresh’s project but it is also part of a wider strategy which people working here didn’t know about. We realised there was a lot of work to be done on how we talked about Refresh and how we transmitted its DNA to our collaborators.” Since then, Dennemont has worked to open the vision and the different aspects of Refresh’s scope to his team, saying that “it was crucial for employees to understand how they contributed to Refresh’s success but also where they were positioned in its wide range of perspectives. They are the first ambassadors of the project after all and it is in our best interest to make sure they can explain to customers how Refresh is spreading its activities on a local level. Even if it’s with their own words and their own perception.”

“It was crucial for employees to understand how they contributed to Refresh’s success but also where they were positioned in its wide range of perspectives.”

At the moment, Refresh faces a crucial turning point in its short-lived existence. Indeed, after a year and a half of being in business, the team that was first hired is slowly leaving as their internship period comes to an end and a new team steps up to the challenge. It’s the first major shift the project is going to go through and Dennemont couldn’t help but feeling, if not worried, a bit preoccupied. “Most of our employees come from this arrangement we passed with our local public welfare center. They have an obligation to put us in relation with potential candidates but it seems there’s a lack of profiles that fit our requirements,” he explains. “There’s a real problem of matching and the center couldn’t seem to care less which forces us to create new partnerships with other public welfare centers or to find new collaborations that will, we hope, lead to better matches. I guess these constraints keep us on our toes and ensure we remain creative,” he says. Dennemont is conscious his most pressing challenge is to make Refresh’s structure more resilient through a network of various people being involved in many ways, from volunteering to actual hiring. “It has been a real desire for us to consider this place as a common good,” he states, willing to label the project as a genuine meeting point. And, judging by the amount of people I saw coming through its doors in the space of just one hour, the strategy’s clearly working. “We’re happy to see a real community organically grow around Refresh,” affirms Dennemont. And unlike what you may think, more people involved doesn’t necessarily mean more rules. “I personally didn’t want to get myself into another administrative mess like the ones I’ve experimented in the past,” he continues, before adding a few nuances. “Of course, some rules are needed as we, at Refresh, use the space as our main working tool. It has to stay in good shape. But when we invite other people to occupy or sublet it, we do our best not to overthink it.”  Describing these fresh ways to collaborate as a kind of “social experimentation”, he smiles while adding that every arrangement remain mostly vocal. “We don’t need to lose all that energy, time and money to ultimately say yes. It’s simply a matter of trust and reliability. That’s all.”

Dennemont’s implication on Refresh could seem a bit blurry to some but it is, in fact, the smartest move the Commune of Ixelles has done for public service in a while. Indeed, despite being a private initiative, Refresh has benefited from the support – financial, operational and structural – of the Commune’s administration (not least its Councillor for Employment, Bea Diallo) as well as of many other institutions. So how do you reconcile a private initative with the very real, problem-solving needs of a communal administration often unable to fulfill the entirety of its stated mission? Where can the private fill-in for the public? Well, for starters, by hiring someone like Dennemont. Indeed, Refresh’s director is no stranger to Ixelles’ administration, having worked there for more than ten years, on very diversified positions, but always with people’s interests at heart. On the side, he has been particularly involved in environmental organisations and always on the lookout to put his entrepreneurial spirit at service. While he’s used to the administration’s operational rhythm and has a global understanding of how the system works, his personal experience on the ground, having himself been involved in social organisations for many years, positions him as the ideal mediator for the projet. Indeed, his understanding of both sides’ needs and concerns lends him a unique ability to speak two languages, to see the two sides to the coin. “It allows me to run the project with an entrepreneurial vision whilst benefiting from the security of a monthly salary,” he adds, pointing out how running social organisations with an entrepreneurial mindset is the first stepping stone in growing these kind of projects into something scalable, with real, street-level value to the neighbourhood. “Finding a way to defend my involvement at Refresh and the necessity to put my salary on Ixelles’ payroll was quite challenging,” he admits “But in the end, when it was time to involve myself at the beginning of 2016, everybody agreed it was a sustainable solution. I’m not sure how it’s all gonna evolve but I’ll make sure to make the best of it until this arrangement eventually disappear of the table due to its uncommonness. It’s the kind of situation that works until it doesn’t,” he concludes with a smirk.

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