A Hand Up or Hard Work? Behind Melbourne’s Social Enterprises

Running a social enterprise in Melbourne’s competitive hospitality sector can feel like a trip to Struggle Town. Managing start-up costs while attending to business is hard enough without also trying to find a way to tangibly help those in need.

But after speaking to the people behind some of Melbourne’s best social enterprises, it’s clear that where there is a will, there is definitely a way.

Getting Off The Street

STREAT CEO Rebecca Scott first began training young homeless people to work at a street food cart in Federation Square, with the aim to build a small fleet of carts around the CBD.

Then it started to rain. Rebecca realised she could not run STREAT under the elements, and pretty soon saw the advantage of establishing permanent premises for each café.

“We still work with the same young people [but now] we run five cafés, a coffee roastery, a catering company, and an artisan bakery.”

All these delicious initiatives are present in the new Cromwell Street café in Collingwood’s heritage Cromwell Manor building. The site opened last month, and also incorporates a youth training academy.


“When people ask me if it’s hard to run a social enterprise café, it makes me laugh,” says Rebecca. “Imagine having a team of 50 amazing staff members, and then every year adding more than 150 absolutely unemployable young people to your business.”

Since 2010, STREAT has helped over 500 young people get on their feet, providing over 52,000 hours of training and support through their cafés and street carts. In addition to the new Cromwell Street café, STREAT has premises on McKillop Street in the CBD, Melbourne Central and RMIT, as well as a corporate location on Freshwater Place in Southbank.

Rebecca says a big part of customer satisfaction is that visitors to each café feel a tangible sense of contribution and part of the social change process.

“[Customers] see directly the difference they make each day with their purchase.”

By 2022, STREAT hopes to be working with over 1000 young people annually.

“That’s the equivalent of one young person each mealtime each year,” says Rebecca.

With its abundant facilities, training spaces and interiors, STREAT’s new Cromwell Street site is already attracting Melburnian café goers, with a quality menu to suit.


Seeking Sustainability Through Stories

Footscray non-profit 100 Story Building provides a space for young, culturally diverse or disadvantaged children to develop their literacy and creativity skills.

Already three years old, 100 Story Building has seen over 10,000 children and young people involved in their programs, which have been supported by almost 6000 hours of volunteer time.

On November 12, 100 Story Building will launch the fifth issue of Early Harvest, a literary magazine created by an editorial board of 10 to 12 year olds. The issue features work by established Australian writers such as Andy Griffiths, Terry Denton and Alice Pung, as well as writers aged between nine and 14 years.

Development manager Jessica Tran says the new issue features “dancing unicorns, mutant meatballs, an impossible Guess Who? game and a choose-your-own-adventure”.

Photo: Travis Fryer

Early Harvest is all about opening up the mysterious creative process to young minds [and] inviting in professionals to share their real-world experiences. It’s a platform for children to exercise agency.”

Just like STREAT, 100 Story Building is focusing on long-term goals for sustainability.

“It’s a complex process requiring a collaborative, flexible approach,” explains Jessica. “We’re often challenged by opportunities to scale and replicate our work, and are often negotiating how we do this to ensure the best outcomes for children and young people in our community, and organisational sustainability.”

Sustainability is one of the biggest challenges for social enterprises, which often run into financial roadblocks.

The End Of BookTalk

Melburnians love books and they love coffee. Richmond ‘cafebreria’ BookTalk provided a space where people could enjoy both without feeling rushed to leave as soon as they finished their coffee. It closed after 15 years of business.

Jason Xiros laughs over the phone. He still can’t believe someone has contacted him in regards to his now permanently closed BookTalk.

Once Dimmey’s closed its doors on Swan Street, Jason and several other shop owners began to see customers dwindle. Then the lease ran out.

Though BookTalk saw substantial growth from 2011 to 2012, the closure of Dimmey’s – and loss of foot traffic – made it harder for BookTalk to thrive.

“We were putting our own money into it,” Jason says. “We installed solar panels [and] really invested in the place. We absolutely loved it and expected it to improve.”

Photo: BookTalk

Like STREAT, BookTalk was also a place for those less fortunate to find work.

“We trained staff who were homeless or who had mental health issues to work in our store,” Jason says.

But there was another factor that made BookTalk tick: “It was like a second home to us,” says Jason.

Jason insists that if he were younger, he would have been able to keep BookTalk going at a feasible level. However, he is adamant not to dwell on the past, and would prefer that the public venture out to places like Embiggen BooksThe Sun Bookshop, and Avenue Bookstore, which recently opened its doors on the former BookTalk site. Each bookstore provides a rich, curated collection of books and aims to engage with locals on a community level.

Paying It Forward – With Soup

At The Soup Place and In A Rush cafés, owner George Paraskevopoulos allows customers to pay $3.50 for a bowl of soup for a homeless person. He emphasises that it is not a donation, because customers know exactly where their money is going. Customers write a note to accompany their purchase, which is put up on the shop wall and redeemed by homeless people from 7am until 7pm, every day.

The philosophy behind George’s social enterprise is simple: keep the conversation going; pay it forward.

“When we first started doing this about a year ago we wrote the tickets ourselves. After a year [of asking customers to write their own notes], the idea took off.”

After kickstarting the platform through his own efforts and support from his staff, George now relies on the generosity of the public. Business boomed after The Soup Place was featured on the ABC website, and social media, though not George’s strong suit, is also vital.

“Pay-it-forward is so powerful,” George says. “Even [a] conversation like this. You will probably tell someone else about it.”

Photo: In A Rush Espresso

This article was originally published in Urban Walkabout.