New Year, new Local Heroes. Yes we’re back with our series where we big up the people, small businesses and neighbourhood spots that make London great, and we’re kicking off with The Canvas, which is a vegan cafe, community hub and creative space just off Brick Lane. The social enterprise has been providing people with space and support to solve problems, and has been making life better for the local community since it opened in 2014 by sending out free meals to the vulnerable, running a pay it forward board in the cafe to provide free food and drink for the homeless, and offering free space for projects on mental health and social change.
Owner Ruth Rogers, who describes The Canvas as “a platform for events that inspire and empower people to live a better life, for themselves and for the planet”, grew the venue from “my belief that humans are amazing, they just need space to be so.” She explains, “I’ve always been a positive activist; I’m motivated by enabling people to get their great ideas off the ground. The idea of having a venue where I could do that as my full time job was a huge driver for me, and kept me going in those first few years when I was working all hours and literally learning on the job – and making lots of mistakes!”
There may have been some mistakes but The Canvas has also seen some huge successes. “We’re a launchpad and incubator for ideas and projects to launch and grow, so the biggest success stories would be those of others,” says Ruth. “Two huge success stories are the Museum of Happiness, and Fat Macy’s, both now successful and independent social businesses that launched at The Canvas. The Museum of Happiness took a 1 year residency in our Community Hub in 2016, running free mindful events for their (and our) community. This residency lead to them succeeding with a large crowdfunder to graduate to their own space in 2017. Fat Macy’s ran their first supper clubs with us in the summer of 2017, and now run Ebury by Fat Macy’s in Pimlico, and are opening their second site in Shoreditch any day now.” The Canvas team haven’t done so bad themselves, creating over 15,000 free meals for the local community and over £30,000 worth of donations to provide food and drink for the homeless.
Luckily they were able to continue that work through the pandemic; the cafe was open whenever it was permitted so the the pay it forward scheme could run, and they also funded free meals through the ‘Double Helpings‘ project with Gilbert and George. Events were a no-go though, which as Ruth says, “was a real blow to the vibrancy of the place; it’s most thriving when there are creative and community events happening around the buzz and bustle of the cafe. But the pandemic created an even greater need for community, and for independent businesses to survive, so in many ways it made us more determined.”
More free meals are on the cards for 2022, with Ruth aiming to triple the numbers. “Our creative space is being renovated at the moment, so 2022 will see a curated programme of events that showcase some of the most exciting and innovate positive ideas and campaign around today to help people and the planet,” adds Ruth. “I hope to see more pop-up residency partnerships like Lady Lane Kitchen, where we work alongside exciting chefs bringing incredible evening menus to London.”
The Canvas has such a deep link with the East London neighbourhood it calls home; it serves local people and local issues, and it’s that local community that brings life to the venue. For Ruth, the best things about being based on Brick Lane are the people and the creativity. “Our customers are wonderful, and choose The Canvas because they know we’re so much more than just a cafe. Our pay it forward customers have such amazing stories, and are desperate to give back in gratitude for the kindness they receive; one once brought us a table for our garden, as a thank you. We’re right opposite one of the most famous street art walls in the area, so our backdrop regularly changes; we’re the best spot to watch the art unfurl, with a coffee and a homemade cake,” she says.”And there’s a resilience to the area; it’s seen so many changes, and there are many more to come. But there’s a cheerfulness, a strength, a determination to the business owners and the residents, that this area will always be special, no matter what.”
In the spirit of local love, Ruth wants to shout out some other social enterprises she works with through The Canvas, “our coffee comes from Redemption Roasters, the UK’s first prison-based coffee company; they train and employ prisoners to make coffee from their roastery at HMP The Mount. Our tea comes from NEMI teas, a London-based social enterprise who train and employ refugees. So do our bread suppliers, Breadwinners.Our vegan honey comes from The Female Glaze, a vegan feminist bakery based in North London, run by our ex-sous chef Francesca.”
42 Hanbury St, London E1 5JL