Tucked away on the end of a Grade-II listed church in south London is Cafe Van Gogh. The vegan, non-profit restaurant sits just around the corner from Van Gogh House, a museum erected in the Georgian terrace the artist lived in from 1873-74. Visitors to the café can expect to be greeted with a giant ceiling mural of the ubiquitous Starry Night (1889); “people love it,” says the director and head chef Bonita de Silva although, she adds, the paintwork is old now and would benefit from some work.
The issue is funding. The café not only serves food but also trains adults with disabilities, learning difficulties and mental health issues into the workforce—a worthwhile though costly initiative. Indeed, Van Gogh’s own difficult relationship with both work and mental health is well documented. It is a connection to the artist De Silva is proud of. Trainees currently work front-of-house and as baristas and waiters. The café is keen to begin training participants as kitchen porters but it is unable due to a lack of suitable kitchen.
The café is looking to raise £50,000 to complete a kitchen expansion that will allow for a much-needed training area. “At the moment it’s much more of a domestic setup,” De Silva says. The main kitchen is also a “disruptive environment” for those with additional needs. So far, £28,000 has been raised towards the project (£22,000 from a grant by Big Issue Invest and £6,000 in crowdfunding). Donations remain open.
Funding is also complicated by the fact that—despite the café’s non-profit status and public training programmes—it does not qualify as a charity, instead being registered as a Community Interest Company (CIC), which excludes them from many useful grants. As a business, Cafe Van Gogh is still relatively small, mostly serving the local community and those looking to make a day out of a visit to the museum. The cafe has launched campaigns to boost customer footfall. Booking drives were a great help post-pandemic but “it’s about keeping people coming through our doors”, de Silva says. Revenue from the business is the main funding source for the traineeships and regular patronage is the most effective way for supporters to help.
And when first-time patrons do visit the café—after taking in the overhead spectacle and the Provencal-like building—what should they order? De Silva recommends the vegan Philly cheesesteak, a hearty shiitake mushroom lasagne, and the Saturday brunch menu comprising, among other treats, a full English breakfast and French toast served with a fresh fruit compote.