Meet Gabby Cluness: social entrepreneur, co-founder and co-director of Milk Cafe.
Why You Should Know Her
Gabby is the co-founder of social enterprise Milk Cafe, in Glasgow’s southside. It is the first of a range of ventures which empower and promote the integration of migrant and ethnic minority women who live in the city.
Set up with no prior knowledge or experience and barely any money, but with a huge amount of determination and passion, Milk offers volunteer opportunities and the chance to learn new skills in a friendly, supportive environment, as well as being a hub for the local community where pop up restaurant evenings, classes in art, English and open mic nights are hosted.
You’ll also find fantastic sustainable coffee from Home Ground Coffee, bread baked by Freedom Bakery and a whole pile of yummy breakfast fare. And cakes, lots of cakes.
Gabby and co-founder and co-director Angela Ireland make a huge difference to the lives of ethnic minority women and children in the area, supporting other social enterprises as they go. They live and breathe ACTUAL Girl Power and are such an inspiration to me and, I’m pretty confident, anyone who comes in contact with them.
Hello, Gabby! Milk is such a fantastic project. How did the idea come about?
Angela and I met each other working in a restaurant in Glasgow, whilst trying to get jobs in the third sector… both of us equally unsuccessfully! We quickly became pally and leapt at the opportunity to escape bar work for a year in the sun. [We spent a year] gallivanting round Latin America, frequently huddled over notebooks planning our dream “socially responsible cafe” and by the time we came home we were both pretty sure it was what we wanted to do.
We were always clear that while we were interested in hospitality, and creating the kind of cafe we had in mind, we both felt strongly that a traditional capitalist, profit driven business wasn’t where our passion lay. We were much more interested in combining a running cafe with a community project of some kind, though until coming back to Glasgow we weren’t entirely sure exactly what form that would take.
We were both similar in our politics and interests, however and after volunteering with various refugee support groups upon our return to the UK, we realised that refugee and migrant women would be a really good fit for the type of people we wanted to support through the cafe.
Did you have any catering experience – did you have to do any training in the run up to opening Milk?
Neither of us had any catering experience other than being social butterflies who liked the odd dinner party or two. I have always liked cooking but certainly had no real professional kitchen experience. We had to learn everything on the go; this was pretty evident to anyone who experienced some of our more tragic culinary episodes in the first few weeks after opening. We went to some relevant training regarding asylum seekers and working with volunteers, but we seemed to think that it would all sort of work out. Thanks to a lot of help and a dose of luck, it kind of has!
What do you enjoy most about the job?
Firstly I love working with my pals. Angela was the jigsaw piece in my vague plan which made it fall into place, and despite the occasional sulk with each other we have such a great time together at work. Everyone said don’t start a company with your pal, but it is the best thing that I have ever done. All the volunteers have become friends over time as well, so it really is just hanging out baking and chatting with your chums most days.
I also love seeing the progress of everyone involved; everybody has developed so many new skills whether it’s speaking English, frothing milk or making the perfect scone (that one is certainly not me). I enjoy most things about the job which is something I feel incredibly lucky to be able to say.
We also do a lot of stuff with the local Roma kids who were a completely unexpected part of running a cafe on Victoria Road. Some days to be honest, I would happily lock them out, but most of the time they are really good fun, lively and engaged and they bring a lot of energy and humour to the cafe.
What have been the main challenges?
The main challenges have definitely been doing things which are completely outwith my comfort zone, like being organised and tidy in the kitchen (trying at least), and remembering to do things when I say I will. I am a complete disaster in my personal life in terms of adhering to commitments, and it has been at times quite difficult for me to have to be responsible and committed in MILK. Some of the volunteers see our job descriptions as pretty vague and/or variable; having to phone the job centre regarding frozen benefits at the same time as babysitting a wailing toddler and rehabilitating a tray of burning biscuits can be quite stressful, but it is also what makes it interesting.
I’m guessing it must be very rewarding. Is that so, and what do you find the most rewarding about it?
I think what I find most rewarding is that it is so evident how much the women involved in the project love the cafe and each other. It might not always be the slickest operation, but I think it is a space where women come and feel genuinely safe, welcome and included in lots of different ways.
The project is aimed at helping ethnic minority women. Is feminism something that’s always been important to you, or is it more a response to specific problems you’ve witnessed while volunteering?
Feminism is hugely important to me and always has been. One of the few things I get genuinely furious about, is people’s’ (especially women’s) refusal to take ownership of the title of feminist, like it’s something embarrassing. Do you think women should be entitled to identical privileges, rights and status in the eyes of society and the law? Then you’re a feminist.
“Do you think women should be entitled to identical privileges, rights and status in the eyes of society and the law? Then you’re a feminist.”
I have been aware of the inequalities that exist for women for as long as I can remember, but I think working with women from other parts of the world really reinforced the importance of active feminism for me. Whether it’s FGM, arranged marriages, or a lack of access to education, women and girls around the world generally have a terrible time in comparison to their male counterparts. Scotland is certainly not perfect, but the very fact I have been to school, been allowed to chose my own sexual partners and carve a career of my own choice has given me a huge advantage to most of the women on this planet. I think those of us who have these opportunities and privileges (though they should be very basic human rights) have a responsibility to try and support women who do not.
What kind of food do you serve at Milk? Do you plan specific menus, and is it influenced by the people working in the kitchen?
We are pretty free and easy in the kitchen, though most of the time it is standard brunch chat with omelettes and bacon sandwiches leading the way. We do have the occasional special which is made by a volunteer, and it is fantastic to see people trying new things that they have never even heard of.
We do however do a lot of pop-ups featuring one type of cuisine; this has included Palestinian, Mexican, Moroccan and Eritrean evenings. They were all sold out, which shows that people do have a palate for new and interesting dishes, just perhaps not on a Sunday morning at 10am when a bacon sandwich seems to trump all.
Have you learned any new recipes, and if so what are your favourites?
So many! Angela and I didn’t really have any exotic culinary knowledge other than both being greedy little cats who had done a lot of travelling. We had an amazing woman, Valentina volunteering with us for a long time, who was originally Romanian but had lived in Palestine most of her life. She is one of those cooks who just has to look at something and it tastes better than when you did it, and she taught us lots of recipes including a revolutionary humous (NO OLIVE OIL!!!!) and a fantastic Shakshuka recipe, which is eggs baked in a spicy tomato base. Delicious.
We have also had a lot of Eritrean volunteers, who have shown us how to make Injera, which is a fermented pancake. It takes about 5 days and you have to do quite a lot with is, and sadly I am too lazy so have yet to try it myself, but I believe the steps are vaguely cemented in my brain if there was ever an Injera emergency.
What are some of the nights and events you put on at the cafe? How have they been going?
We have done lots of different events, either through ourselves or our volunteers, or in cahoots with other organisations. Most of them have been fundraisers for things like Hope Not Hate, or Syrian charities, and they have been great. Milk is a nice space, it feels really homely and relaxed, and this is reflected by the people who approach us to use the cafe at night. Everyone has been lovely, and passionate about food, or the cause they are supporting, so it has made our lives pretty easy. We have a few regular dining nights including That’s Yer Dinner and Decant Be Serious, who are both pals who are trying to gain experience so that they can open their own places or start their own projects, and it is really lovely to think we are giving them a chance to make that more likely. It also means that we get to try a lot of fantastic food, which is never a bad thing.
“People can be dismissive of making things … It doesn’t require any language skills or academic prowess to be able to take part, and the act of creating something is so uplifting and empowering”
Though the week, we have our regular art class, sewing class and open mic, and these are all absolutely wonderful in their different ways. The art class particularly has been really successful and getting lots of different women together and creating a really special atmosphere. I think people can be dismissive of making things and crafty stuff, but I think it is so important in Milk, for our volunteers and for the bairns we work with. It doesn’t require any language skills or academic prowess to be able to take part, and the act of creating something is so uplifting and empowering. It also allows relationships to form in a relaxed way whilst hands are busy and it doesn’t feel so forced. Equally some women just use it as a time to be quiet and focus on the present. Mindfulness in action!
Milk is the first of the Tin Cat social enterprises – what are your plans for the future?
We would like to move into events. We have been asked to do a couple of weddings this summer, and whilst it is a bit scary we think it is good to keep challenging ourselves. The cafe format works really well, and it would be wonderful to open one up in the East End of Glasgow tool, as there are large refugee populations living there with not much in the way of community projects. Much further down the line, it would be really nice to do something which confronted traditional gender roles. We often wish one of us had done plumbing at college so we could start up something in that vein, but I suspect fitting in a 4 year apprenticeship at the moment may be a bit of a struggle. We have so many ideas that it is hard to pick just one, but I hope that the next year will show us launching another exciting project.