Vinnie's Café

Obviously, we’d been to St Vincent’s Newcastle before. We had the pleasure of meeting centre manager, Rebecca, and Emma, the project manager, earlier in the year when we came to propose ‘teaming up to feed some people’, a task that they are both highly skilled and experienced in.

Following an absorbing meeting, hearing about the vast framework of support and opportunities the St Vincent’s team deliver into the Newcastle community, we walked out of the building into an airy summer’s day feeling full of optimism and determination but not really sure where this journey would take us, or to be frank, exactly what we were doing.

When we decided to refocus our business mission it was because we recognised that the community isn’t something ‘out there’, it’s something we are part of, and our region can thrive if we consider and support the wellbeing of everyone who is part of it. Donations, grants and sponsorship are the lifeblood of the third sector, but insight can lead to action, and action can lead to change, and let’s face it, having families starving and living in poverty in our region is unacceptable, and has to change. Which brings us to the second, but by no means lesser, focus of our business mission…

‘To dedicate time to understanding the scope of work and the people involved in our community partner organisations, providing a link between the commercial and third sectors, not only by sharing resources but by sharing real life insights and stories.’

So, there we were, full of determination, ideas, and Byker sunshine, hoping Rebecca and Emma would be patient with us, as our first ever community partners, while we got to grips with our processes and learned how to document their work as an organisation with sensitivity, and without crossing any ethical boundaries.

Skip forward a couple of months to the bleakest, greyest October day so far (you know, the one where it poured down a month’s worth of rain in one day..), and our education was well underway thanks to the wonderful Jan Cruikshanks.

As Catering Supervisor at St Vincents, Jan is primarily the mastermind behind all the meals prepared for Vinnie’s Café, a weekly drop-in lunch service providing free meals for the local homeless population, alongside pay-as-you-please meals and drinks for anyone experiencing hardship. We started delivering Jan’s fresh veg order for the cafe when we launched our partnership back in September, but this was our first visit to see the cafe in action and get a better insight into Jan’s work.

We arrived half way through a busy Tuesday lunch session, and the large hall that houses the Café was still buzzing with people. Guests were talking and eating around tables, volunteers took lunch orders and served teas and coffees, and peering into the kitchen we could see a hub of activity as food was prepared and dishes washed.

It wasn’t long before Jan came out to greet us, and with a firm but kind hand, began showing us how things are done. Picking us up with the energy of a methodical whirlwind, she directed us through the inner workings of the café without missing a beat.

“The tables are set out with volunteers on each section. Our guests tend to come in and get a pastry, donated by Sainsburys usually, and a tea, coffee or hot chocolate. Today Marilyn and Jill are serving hot soup, and once our guests have had that, their lunch order will be taken and brought to the kitchen.”

We were moved seamlessly over to the kitchen to take a look at the next part of the process, and introduced to the team of volunteers doing the cooking and plating up. Though they gave us a welcoming ‘hello’, it was clear they were expert hands focused on the job of getting out today’s lunch, a hearty stew, mash, cabbage and carrots, that honestly looked delicious. “We always make sure there’s a vegetarian option too, and a pudding.” It’s easy to overlook the importance of the pleasure and joy we get from food, alongside the nutritional value. The home made apple crumble with ice cream or custard on today’s menu was the perfect comfort food for a wet autumn day.

After pausing for a quick photo (again, Jan stepped up to do her duty as everyone else was feeling camera shy) we moved on. Looking inside a huge upright freezer, also a donation, there was box upon box of carefully stored food, ready to be turned into a hot meal whenever the opportunity presented itself. Being reliant on what is donated or bought through FareShare means choice is rarely an option when it comes to planning for the Café. Jan is scrupulously careful with any produce that comes her way. Nothing is wasted, everything is treasured and eked out to ensure that, no matter what, there is a healthy, hot meal available every week at Vinnie’s for the people who need it.

“Having the money from the Feelgood fund means we can include our guests in meal planning. I ask a few different guests each week, so they have some say in what they’re going to be eating. If we haven’t got money, then it’s just what we get donated. I have to be very aware of getting the most out of the money. One group joked they wanted Tomahawk steaks for lunch – I said, yeah, when we win the lottery!”

I asked Jan how many meals were getting served each week now that some semblance of post lockdown normality has returned;

“Last week we did 76 meals, the most we’ve done is 94, way over pre covid numbers because people are really struggling. We help people who are sleeping on the street, we help families who are struggling, and I think the way things are going at the moment we’re going to have a lot more, with the universal credit cut, which to me is appalling.”

She isn’t alone in her view, in fact a 100 strong coalition of prominent national organisations, including the North East Child Poverty Commision, signed a joint open letter to the Prime Minister, calling on him not to implement the £20 a week cut to Universal Credit this October 6th. Clearly, the planned cut has gone ahead, reducing the income of approximately 6 million people living close to the poverty line by over £1,000 per year. As Jan is all too aware, the impact of that will hit hard as the winter months unfold.

“When you’ve had something for a couple of weeks, you know that’s that, but when you’ve had it for nearly two years, you’ve depended on it. To suddenly have it taken away is devastating for a lot of people. And then you’ve got the gas and electric going up, families now have to fit that in, it’s coming up to christmas, how are they going to manage?”

Listening to Jan it was clear that she takes her commitment to her position at St Vincent’s very seriously, this isn’t just a job, it’s a vocation. She seemed stoic and focused, intent on pouring her abundant energy into delivering on her role, and I’m guessing anything else that ‘just needs doing’ too.

With the tour of the kitchen over, we were ushered back out to the hall and Jan directed us to the best vantage point for a photo while simultaneously checking in with a volunteer manning the tea and coffee area, “Peter are you alright – are you alright in a photo?”. She has a dry sense of humour, but also a sparkle and warmth that comes across even in the middle of a wet Tuesday lunch service. I asked her the story of how she came to hold her pivotal position at Vinnie’s Café;

“How do I start? I got a text off a friend saying Vinnie’s has had a big donation from a local supermarket, can you pick it up? I said of course no problem, and that was over a year ago. We have a store of donated clothes, baby equipment, nappies, toiletries and everything anyone struggling might need, and through the pandemic I was delivering food parcels, clothes parcels, everything. I was helping in our shop too, when Emma, one of the project managers, texted me saying ‘Jan, the cook’s off sick..can you cook?’ so I volunteered in that role for 12 weeks and when the cook sadly left, they suggested I apply for the job. I didn’t want a job, but the job wanted me, so now I’m the catering supervisor!”

My inkling that Jan goes the extra mile was on the mark too. Looking ahead to a busy Christmas time, Jan and Emma plan to ‘Sleep Out’ to help raise essential funds for the months ahead.

“At Christmas time we do a whole proper christmas meal, make up food hampers for families with christmas treats in, and everyone will get a present. So me and Em, are sleeping out on the 15th of October (please pray for no rain!) and getting sponsors to raise money to help us through the winter. At 63 years old I’m sleeping on the street to raise money for people who do it every night.

A lot of people have said to me, why are you sleeping on the street? and I say because I’m lucky, I go home to a nice comfortable house. It’s one night and it makes such a difference. As I say, I didn’t need a job, the job needed me – just to help so many people is just amazing. You look at the people we’re helping, I go and see the families and I see the conditions they’re living in. I can see what people need and it breaks my heart. And it’s not just the people sitting in this building, it’s out in our whole area. It really does get in your blood… .And that’s about it from me.”

We no doubt took up way too much of Jan’s precious time, and can’t thank her enough for showing us around and sharing her thoughts and insights.

As well as sleeping out to raise funds, Jan and Emma will also be taking packs of treats, snacks, and essentials like Tampax, wipes, and other toiletries to distribute to homeless people on the night. If you would like to support them with a donation, that would be absolutely brilliant and very much appreciated – click here to make your pledge.