A friend recently shared a TikTok video with me knowing that I’m always on the lookout for new coffee places to visit in Leeds. In the video were delicious looking cakes and a warm welcome from Jackie.
I was already drawn in before the narrator explained that the bakery and cafe support disadvantaged women across Leeds into employment. Not far from my house, nestled into Mabgate Mills, I made my first visit a few days later to escape the home office for a while and enjoy a good coffee and a tasty treat. I wanted to know more. Co-founder and owner Clare Sanderson was happy for me to return so that she could tell me the full story behind The Wren, the “cafe with a purpose”. The following week I popped back and sat down with Clare over a flat white and a slice of delicious cake.
How did it all start?
Hailing from the Midlands, Clare moved to Manchester in the late 1990’s to run a cafe at the Manchester Craft Centre. She then trained as a mental health social worker, which brought her to Leeds a few years later for a work placement, and she has never left. Clare developed a wealth of experience working in Adult Mental Health Services, Leeds Mind (Mental Health Charity), and as a social worker at the Jewish Welfare Board. It was the work at the latter where there was the opportunity to be involved in more creative hands-on support with people, making chutneys and launching a social enterprise for service users.
A career break ensued in 2017, to enable Clare to care for her father-in-law. During this time solace was found in a patisserie course at Leeds City College. Through this Clare got to know Andrew McBean, owner of the Barn Cafe at Meanwood Valley Urban Farm, eventually starting a cake business from home supplying cakes for the Barn Cafe and making some vital networks connections in the Leeds business community along the way.
Clare tells me how it was around this time that the idea of starting up a social enterprise business had its roots. “After many discussions with my friend Emma (Flint) who worked at the Joanna Project, we visited the Luminary Bakery in London. They had a good business model and we shared our business ideas with their founder. The following year was spent developing our business plan and identifying funding opportunities across Leeds. We were surprised at how much we could access.” Some of the funding was raised via Leeds Community grants, the Liz & Terry Bramall Foundation and crowdfunding.
Move forward to February 2020, and enough funds had been sourced to buy and fit out a Citroen hy van, named Millicent. The Wren was officially born, operating from Meanwood Community Centre where the first cohort of women began baking skills in the newly renovated kitchen, and barista training from the van. Unfortunately, the timing could not have been any worse, as we all know the Covid-19 pandemic hit us the month after and by the end of March 2020, the UK commenced the first of many lockdowns and restrictions on our everyday life. During those lockdown months, Clare held regular Zoom baking and wellbeing classes to maintain contact and continue development with the women.
When restrictions began loosening, the van went to areas such as Moortown and Shadwell, and popped up at weddings selling coffees and cakes. Business boomed, with the demand for takeaway coffees greater than ever (one of the few pleasures at the time that people could get!) The cohort re-commenced in September 2020, taking 12 months to complete instead of the usual 6 months. Not long after this, The Wren moved to rent kitchen space at Mabgate Mills in order to cope with the demands for baked produce.
The time came in 2022 to sell the Millicent in order to fund the move to their current location in Mabgate mills. The Wren took over the lease of the existing cafe from owners Mark and Jean just two months ago.
The Wren’s business model is based solely around one group of people: women with histories of mental health conditions, alcohol and drug dependency, or who have found themselves in the criminal justice system. The programme is one day a week for six months, and its key aim is supporting women into employment. The day is a mixture of baking cakes, wellbeing workshops, barista training (provided by Andrew), art therapy and socialising. Referrals are all made via professionals from the voluntary sector organisation, the Department of Work and Pensions and NHS Social Prescribers. Women build up their portfolio over time with mentoring and work experience in the café, building their skills and confidence. After graduating from, and celebrating, this 6 month period, the women trainees go on to receive 18 months of individual mentoring support to transfer their skills into employment opportunities. The fourth cohort of women has just started.
Clare: “Personalisation is key to making our model work. Each woman’s experience, skill set and goals are unique to them, so we must approach the training and development on a personal 1:1 basis. Choice is also essential as this promotes empowerment and motivation.“
I was lucky enough to grab some time with Jackie, a former trainee who now works at The Wren bakery, both in the cafe and supporting trainees. Jackie was very open, telling me how her struggles with alcohol and anxiety left her housebound with agoraphobia for some years. It was a referral from Five Ways Recovery Leeds that transformed her life and linked her up with The Wren Bakery when she joined the first cohort. Jackie, who is now also a Trustee, saw her confidence soar. You can tell she loves her job. From the interactions I witnessed with customers, she goes above and beyond making people feel welcomed.
To find out more about how to support The Wren or for more information on the referral process email: [email protected]. The Wren cafe is open every weekday, serving breakfasts, light lunches and cakes. Give them a follow on social media for information on upcoming events. Last week saw them hosting Great British Bake Off 2018 finalist and Wren Ambassador Kim-Joy’s new book launch event.
The Wren is a fantastic initiative, one that I’m looking forward to seeing grow and visiting frequently for more good coffee, tasty treats and friendly, warm greetings from Jackie.
The Wren Cafe and Bakery
The Coffee House
Cover photograph: Claire (l) and Jackie (r). Cath Kane.