We all know that East London, with its
edgy street art and negroni-sipping creative types, loves a novelty cafe. From the nostalgic mush served by Brick Lane's Cereal Killer Cafe to the borderline animal cruelty of Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium in Bethnal Green, the area is a mecca for gimmicky food pop-ups and pretty much anything featured in the Time Out "Quirky" listings pages.
Second Shot is the latest cafe with an unusual back story to open here, but unlike its feline and rainbow-food-serving neighbours, it hopes to make an impression beyond Instagram likes.
Running as a social enterprise, the cafe is taking on the capital's homeless problem by training and employing those who have found themselves sleeping on the streets.
I visit on Second Shot's first day of opening and a queue of eager twentysomethings is already snaking out of the door. After swiping one of the reclaimed wood chairs (natch, it's still East London), I watch baristas behind the bar get the hang of using the new tills, and gratefully accept a free sample of fruity brownie being handed out by another staff member. The only giveaway that this may not be your average cafe is a sign encouraging patrons to ask "how Second Shot are tackling homelessness, one espresso at a time."
"We wanted to change the way that people view social enterprises and homelessness," Second Shot founder Julius Ibrahim explains, walking over from the espresso machine to greet me. "I hope that people will come in, have a coffee, enjoy the space, and then realise that we have this amazing social back-up."
Ephy, one of the two new recruits currently manning the counter, heard about Second Shot while working at Cafe by Crisis, a similar initiative from housing charity Crisis that aims to equip homeless people with catering skills for employment. Since starting work and training at Second Shot, Ephy is off the streets and living with his mother.
"The manager of the cafe told me that there was a job opportunity for a new cafe opening in the area," he explains. "I was excited that she thought I was an ideal person to apply for Second Shot. I loved the sound of the concept."
It's a story Ibrahim hopes to see repeated, as he aims to employ more rough sleepers over the next few weeks, working with Crisis and other homeless charities like House of St Barnabas and The Connection at St. Martin-in-the-Fields to find candidates suited to the scheme.
Ephy already has high expectations for his new job.
"I'm helping Julius' idea come to life and I'm hoping to become better than the person who trained me," he says.
Second Shot pays its staff the London Living Wage but doesn't aim to provide long-term employment. Rather, it operates as a way to teach homeless people the workplace skills they need to find a permanent job elsewhere.
"We employ people but then take them to wherever they want to go," explains Ibrahim. "People who are affected by homelessness come from so many different backgrounds and you can't say after a certain amount of time if they should be doing this or that."
The idea for Second Shot came to Ibrahim after he moved to London from suburban Surrey in 2013 to study at University College, London (UCL). He was overwhelmed by the number of rough sleepers in the capital.
"I started consulting for charities while I was a student at UCL and I was frustrated that we couldn't come up with an effective solution to this problem," he remembers.
Despite not having a background in hospitality or coffee, Ibrahim settled on the cafe model for his initiative.
"Barista training is a good entry level role and people will be able to master pulling a good shot after a couple of days," he explains. "Coffee shops are an accessible way to interact with different people and break down preconceptions of homeless people and what homelessness is."
He's not the only one using Britain's coffee addiction for social change. London coffee cart Change Please launched last year, training homeless people to work on its mobile stalls. And with a reported 275,000 people approaching local authorities for homelessness assistance in the past year, these types of schemes may become even more necessary.
As well as assisting London's homeless community, Second Shot supports fellow East London social enterprises, such as Luminary Bakery who provide baking and business skills to vulnerable women and the Dusty Knuckle, a Hackney bakery working with disadvantaged young people.
The cafe also implements a "pay it forward" system, encouraging customers to buy an extra coffee or slice of cake which is then donated to a homeless person. It's not a new idea but within only two hours of opening, more than 30 pay it forward purchases have been made.
There's no doubting Second Shot's commitment to social action, but what about the coffee?
"Our coffee is niche. We have a brew bar offering Chemex, Aeropress, and V60 filter coffees alongside the regular espresso-based drinks," Ibrahim assures me. "Our head of coffee Emilio Rodriguez will be changing up the coffee offering every couple of weeks to keep things interesting. We need to have as good a product as any other business."
By combining social enterprise with high quality food and drink, Second Shot hopes you avoid the gimmick cafe label.
"The core of what we're doing is strong, so I'm not worried," says Ibrahim. "People will come because of our ethos and they'll come back for the product."
As I finish my coffee and watch Ephy and Ibrahim supply the late afternoon rush of customers with mochas and fresh pastries, I'm certain I'll be coming back.