In Conversation With Anna Dyson, Co-founder of ToastLoveCoffee

Sitting at the junction of Harehills Road and Roundhay Road , ToastLoveCoffee – or TLC – is a pay-as-you-feel vegetarian café, and, as Thomas Chalk found out when he met co-founder Anna Dyson, so much more.

Tell me about the origins of TLC.

We’ve been a concept since Christmas of 2013, and we incorporated as a company in July 2014. We opened in September 2014, first just as a pop-up coffee morning, and then it’s grown and grown and we took these premises on in July of last year, opening in December 2018, so it’s coming up to our first birthday in this business space as an independent high street café with a big heart.   

Our story – mine and my co-founder Anita’s –  is that we wanted to create a space through food and through coffee for people to meet who otherwise wouldn’t in the City, and to be a space where we create community through difference – there are so many opportunities to make friends and hang out with people who are like you, but there are very few spaces to make friends with people who are not like you.  We want to role model and demonstrate community, positivity and kindness, bringing people together from different communities and different backgrounds. 

…and, presumably, the location was quite an important factor in that, finding a location that sits in the middle of an area with lots of different communities, a very diverse area?

Historically it’s a place of immigration, Harehills.  My grandma and her family arrived here as part of the Jewish immigration from Russia at the turn of the twentieth century and it’s where she grew up.  I grew up in London, but I moved back to Leeds when I met my husband, who’s from Leeds.  We started off in Chapel Allerton, moved to Roundhay, and in Christmas 2012 I volunteered at a centre for newly-arrived asylum seekers where I met TLC co-founder Anita who is still, seven years on, fighting for her right to sanctuary in this country. 

The story of the café is the story of our friendship, and our friendship was formed in LS8. I would pick her up, and her son – our kids were toddlers at that point – and we just hung out and spent time together. So for me, not only is it Harehills because of the diverse community here and the history of immigration here, but it’s also very personal. We get asked if we would set up elsewhere, and you know what – no, because it has to be Harehills.

Somebody else could, perhaps, but for the two of you it’s an extension of that friendship?

Yes, exactly.

In the time I’ve been here this afternoon, there have been people here chatting away and drinking coffee, and then one group of people got up and said goodbye to another group of people on another table, and it had that real sense of community, of being not just small sets of people who know each other – of people who potentially know each other from here. It’s like the tradition of a local pub, but with coffee rather than beer.

Yes. We’re proud, but equally it makes me very sad that we know there are people in this area who come in pretty much every day, and to them it’s the only conversation they have in the day, it’s the only hot drink, even. They may have support at home but it’s so limited, so short on time, and there are people here who do have the time to chat with them. 

It’s about tackling isolation, and in a way that is very natural and unforced.

It was an idea from two women that just grew and grew – and it’s very important to say that we would not be in the position we’re in now, in this fabulous location, with it looking as it is, without the kindness and generosity of so many people – people across Leeds, and even across the country, through my network and my husband’s network, but also total strangers who have given very generously. We’re at the point where we have two members of staff, one funded out of our budget and one out of grant funding, including Time To Shine, which is money aimed at reducing isolation for older people and money to promote digital inclusion – we put on training and support for people to get online. Our backbone is the café, is the food, but it’s more than that.  We’re powered by volunteers.  Everyone is a volunteer apart from the two members of staff.

I’m not officially here as a food reviewer, but I can confirm that the food and the coffee are great!

Pretty much everything that we use has been donated to us. We intercept food that would be wasted by supermarkets. We buy spices and things, but everything else, the bread and the vegetables and the pastries, is food that would otherwise be thrown out. The coffee beans are donated by Dark Woods Coffee who are just outside Huddersfield – I sent them an email saying ‘can we have some beans’ and they very kindly send it to us which is amazing.  Ever since we opened they’ve always given us beans freshly roasted. We have amazingly talented volunteers, mainly from the local area (which is why the curries are so good) and some from beyond. People are really giving with their skills and giving with what they want to do to help build community. For some people it’s chopping, for some it’s making dishes, for some it’s serving the coffee, for some it’s painting the walls – people give the best of themselves.

And the benefits of volunteering are very well established, from making connections with people through to developing and improving skills.  Presumably that’s a big part of what drives TLC too?

Yes, it’s huge. I used to think people who do volunteering are do-gooders who have a bit of spare time, and what I’ve learnt on this journey is that we all do it for our own reasons and we all get so much out of it.  I get a huge amount from knowing the value we’ve given people, the value that we’ve placed on what their contribution is, the space that we’ve created being so valuable to them and an important anchor for them. We have volunteers here who are recently off addictions, who’ve told me that volunteering here is the single most important reason that they’ve not returned to that, because it keeps them busy, they’re socialising with different people, people who are not addicted, and they see value in what they’re doing. We have people who are asylum seekers, refugees, people who are applying for jobs who need to have a reference – we can be that reference.

And there’s a lot going on here – to say that you’re only open relatively short hours, you cram a lot in!  There are posters in the window for all sorts of things that take place here.

We’re very lucky that people come to us and say ‘I’d like to run an English class here’, and we have a room upstairs so they hire it, and they and we promote it. We’ve had a pop-up vegan café one evening too. We are looking to open more hours, but of course we’ll need more volunteers and another café manager, but we’re thinking about that. We know that people feel isolated at evenings and weekends, and we’re not open then, and we definitely want to grow into that over the next year. 

That sense of a hub, a focal point, is sometimes what’s needed – “This is here; let’s make it what we want to make it”.  It felt good coming in and feeling that.

People want to give, and maybe there are not enough opportunities in society where they can. We’re a space where they can, so they do.

All photographs by Mark Wheelwright.

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