Unemployment levels for young people with additional needs are high across the world. But in Lewisham, South East London, Ignition Brewery is making a small dent in that statistic. It is staffed by people with additional needs. And what’s more, the workers are paid the London living wage. And even more than this, the profits are distributed to community projects.
The founder of Ignition Brewery is Nick O’Shea, a macroeconomist by profession. Nick’s vision came while volunteering at Mencap’s Tuesday Club – a local disco for those with additional disabilities. He noticed that many clubbers wanted a job, and he saw career potential in so many of them.
So, determined to make a difference, Nick decided to lead by example and find a way to employ people with additional needs himself. He wanted labour-intensive tasks that would suit his target workforce.
He came up with the idea of brewing beer, although he had very little experience. He’d never brewed beer before. He didn’t know any brewers. He wasn’t even a big fan of beer himself! But he went ahead anyway.
He invited all 300 members of the Tuesday Club to get involved, yet only 5 people volunteered. Interestingly, all of these volunteers received support from the council but lived independently with their parents, as opposed to those who lived in supported housing. Nick found that these organisations were discouraging of his venture as it was deemed too risky!
The reluctance from the charitable sector
Nick reported many charitable organisations did not support him when it came to getting the business up and running. The fear being that it was too risky or, worse, an assumption that the product couldn’t be good because of the people who’d made it. Now, however, they are quite happy to ask if he could help find work for the people they support. He believes “There is more of a focus on providing palliative care and a lack of care based on developing people and allowing them to move on and achieve more with their life”.
Nick suggests there is a problem with enterprise and charities not being in harmony. He feels this is because so many people enter the charitable sector to help rather than to run a sustainable business. Nick believes that if more business-minded people were involved, enterprise would thrive.
The importance of community support
Ignition launched last year. It took six months to find a brewery that would allow them to brew on their premises. Of the first 20 batches or so, some of the beer was good, some not so good – in fact some needed tipping away until they perfected their recipe.
But the important thing was: Ignition proved that the model and the concept worked. The work proved to be repetitive and systematic, which suited the workforce very well.
Due to various issues, mainly related hygiene, it soon became clear they needed their own premises. A lease was secured on a former community centre and they fitted it out for brewing. The business was given an enormous boost when the pub chain, Brewhouse & Kitchen, sold them a commercial brewing kit for £1!
Currently they bottle around 1,000 beers a week. They plan to double that in the near future. They supply pubs, restaurants, delicatessens, and run their own events as well. The plan is to open a plush, aspirational bar by the end of this year.
Selling the product, not the person
Ignition have had no trouble with sales. Ignition Brewery focuses on quality, and ensures all the beer sold tastes great. The location of the brewery in Lewisham is the second main selling point (after quality).
The story behind the business in terms of who makes the beer is less important, but it does intrigue people. Local businesses who sell Ignition beer have judged the beer on economic criteria. That is on merit and on value for money – the real litmus tests.
Interestingly, Nick has found that employing people with additional needs is not of big interest to customers. This isn’t because customers find it off-putting; rather customers don’t really mind who’s making it, as long as it looks right and most importantly tastes good!
The vision in action
What is exciting is how easy the brewing model is to replicate. Some capital expenditure, some equipment and a lot of enthusiasm are all it takes. You also need to work with/get advice from someone with brewing experience.
The key for Nick was to provide the right environment for individuals to learn and thrive. He hopes that some members of the workforce will develop transferable skills, thus will be able to gain employment elsewhere in the future if they so desire. He speaks fondly of the parents who took the risk for their loved ones to embrace working in a brewery and go on this journey with him.
Even though Ignition is still in its first year of trading, Nick tells of the huge improvement he has already seen in his staff. Stressful situations on the production line are now calm, the speed of production has increased and while the staff don’t socialise outside of work, they are a fully functioning team. Ignition demonstrates a great business model for any business.
Technological advances mean that service jobs are now a reality for people with additional needs. An issue when hiring people with additional needs can be that some may not be able to read or write clearly, but orders can now be taken on iPads, loaded with pictures for ordering and payments taken with contactless payment – thus overcoming this issue.
Once their new bar opens, the opportunity to start challenging perceptions and showing people that this isn’t a one off will take centre stage. It will show that people with additional needs can be perfectly capable and there’s not a problem they can’t get over. It’s just working out how to do it.