Next up in our Local Heroes series, where we big up the people, small businesses and neighbourhood spots that make London great, is Cafe Van Gogh, a not-for-profit vegan café and community interest organisation in Brixton, with a mission to train adults and young people with learning disabilities so that they’re able to gain employment in the hospitality industry. As founder Steve Clarke says, “People with a learning disability want just the same as us; personal independence, social purpose and financial independence. There is an incredibly strong opportunity to meet these aspirations in the food / catering sector, which is struggling with a recruitment crisis.”

Cafe Van Gogh was founded by Steve in 2015 after he’d quit his 20 year career in supported living, where he’d worked with mental health, addiction and homelessness, and finally realised his ambition to open a community-facing cafe by taking over the cafe in the grounds of an old church on Brixton Road. It had been closed for five years and was in need of a big refurb, so Steve approached the vicar and the parish council with his plan of running the place as a social enterprise, and that was that. As well as taking inspiration from “veggie cafes from London in the 1990’s, including Cafe Pushkar, The Bonnington, and Bah Humbug in Brixton….it was important that the food and service were both equally memorable, that the place was filled with plants, and that there were plenty of places to rest and read,” says Steve.

As well as serving up excellent vegan grub, “in 2019 Bonita De Silva came on board as co-owner and head chef. The food offer has been going from strength to strength ever since”, Cafe Van Gogh operates as community interest company, “which very basically  means that we are mandated to use our profits to be of benefit to the community surrounding us. We do this by providing training opportunities to adults and young people with learning disabilities to guide them into a potential career in hospitality. We work in collaboration with Toucan, a south London based employment service for adults with a learning disability ,who provide a job coach, Michelle who trains people in some of the various roles the cafe offers, such as kitchen porter, front of house work, food prep etc.” explains Steve. “In addition to this, we have also provided cooking nutritious, plant-based food on a budget classes to young people in Lambeth, some of whom were care leavers.” 

The cafe has provided a safe and welcoming space for locals and put people through their training programme but for Steve the highlight of his time running Cafe Van Gogh has been “falling in love with our local community, and the feeling that it was reciprocal. This was demonstrated with a fundraiser that we held to remodel our ground floor so that we could provide more training to more participants, and again during Covid, when the community kept us afloat financially and mentally by buyer vouchers to use at a future date, and by donating money to us to help us get food packages out to elderly and vulnerable people in the local area.”

Continuing to a benefit to the local community is Steve and Bonita’s priority by establishing Cafe Van Gogh as one of London’s leading vegan restaurants and by fitting a new kitchen so they can increase the training opportunities at the back of house. And they want to shout out their other fave places that do the same, “we love Made in Hackney, and the Canvas Cafe. Both demonstrating that it is possible to run a food based business in an ethical way.”

88 Brixton Rd, London SW9 6BE