Thom Walton meets Cemal Ezel, Founder of Finlays’ customer Change Please to discover how it is using coffee to change the world
When it comes to walking the walk on sustainability, the coffee industry has a huge amount to be proud of. Few industries are as focused on sustainable development, or display such genuine commitment to “doing well by doing good”.
So, it takes a lot for a coffee business to truly stand out in this area. But that’s exactly what UK-based Change Please has achieved since launching in 2015. And that’s because, at its heart, Change Please isn’t a coffee company. It’s an impact-focused social enterprise that just so happens to sell (award-winning) coffee as a conduit for achieving its goal of ending homelessness.
Within moments of meeting Change Please’s founder Cemal Ezel, it’s clear he’s a man on a mission, passion resonating from his every word.
“We’re not a coffee company that’s trying to do good on the side. We’re a company that’s set up to tackle homelessness through coffee,” Ezel explains. Change Please’s dedication to impact is ambitious. 100% of its profits go into supporting people experiencing homelessness by training them to become baristas, as well as offering a wide range of other services.
Ezel explains, “We train them to be baristas via an initial training programme that lasts one to three months. We pay them a living wage. We provide them with housing in 10 days, so within 10 days they’re not homeless anymore.”
We’re not a coffee company that’s trying to do good on the side
But that’s not all. “We provide a bank account and therapy support,” he says. “The therapy support is the most important part of what we offer – it really unlocks the trauma that makes the other things not work. And when we started providing that therapy, it made everything flow.”
Ezel estimates Change Please is currently supporting 5% of the rough sleeping population in the UK. Over the last seven years, Change Please has supported over 500 individuals and over 85% of full Trainees have found onward employment.
The rocking chair test
The origins of Change Please are every bit as interesting as the business model. On holiday in Vietnam in his late 20s, a chance encounter with a stranger on a long bus ride sparked a radical change in Ezel’s worldview.
Ezel explains, “We were chatting, and I said I’m not happy with my job and my life. And he said you should do the rocking chair test. Imagine you’re sitting in your rocking chair at the age of 90, looking back on your life asking what’s your legacy to the world? Have you left the world in a better place? It really got me thinking.”
Later in the trip, after visiting a silent tea house run by deaf and mute ladies, the idea of setting up a social enterprise took root.
“I thought, wow, you can do business and good at the same time. Social enterprise has come a long way since then, but in 2013, to me it was really alien. I was really taken back by this by this concept.”
A means to an end
While he knew he wanted to start a social enterprise, Ezel’s initial thought was that he should focus on tea. But the more he thought about it, the more coffee made
sense to him. “Coffee is such an opportunity for growth. It’s a fast-track, low-skill-barrier way for people to get into employment.”
Coffee also makes sense from the point of view of the people Change Please is seeking to help.
“A lot of people we support are military veterans, or they’ve gone through domestic abuse, sexual abuse, divorce, or bereavement. Because they’re standing behind the counter and serving a customer, it’s a safe space. And knowing you’ve made someone else’s day a bit better boosts confidence.”
These days, Change Please’s model also helps alleviate the chronic labour shortages facing hospitality.
Doing good is good for business
While ending homelessness is the goal, it’s clear that doing good is also good for business. Change Please’s coffee is now sold in 250 stores across the UK, has expanded into retail with listings in major UK supermarkets, and also expanded globally.
“We’re now in eight countries and we’ve got a healthy turnover,” Ezel says. “We would never ever have that level of growth if we didn’t have the social element and people just look at the social partners.”
The Importance of Great Taste
But that’s not to say product quality isn’t an equally important ingredient to Change Please’s success.
“When we first launched,” he explains, “we thought that we would have endless queues of people because of the social mission. And actually it just didn’t work. Only 5% of people will out of their way to buy a more expensive product if it doesn’t taste as good. And we realised that you’re not going to change the world with 5% of people.”
The five Great Taste Awards that Change Please has been awarded over the years is testament to its commitment to fantastic tasting coffee, a critical part of the blend.
A Match Made in Coffee Heaven
Change Please has been a customer of Finlays since February 2020 and Ezel believes working with Finlays is a “match made in coffee heaven”.
He says, “Our relationship with Finlays is crucial to allowing us to do the parts that we are good at. Supporting people who are homeless and changing people’s lives. Finlays do the parts that they are experts in: the coffee, production and distribution. This partnership has an ability as we grow to really change lives. It’s so exciting.” Through partnership with Finlays, Ezel’s immediate focus is expanding distribution of Change
Please to an ever-wider audience. “The biggest growth area for us to be able to help more people is in retail and direct to consumer is the area that Finlays excels in. The trust which retailers have in Finlays is second to none.”
Our relationship with Finlays is crucial to allowing us to do the parts that we are good at
One of the achievements Ezel is most proud of is how Change Please has attracted the attention of a wide range of high-profile organisations who are keen to learn from his model. “Government bodies, charities, leading businesses that have been going for years in different countries, are all coming to us for advice.
Disruptivity is a very personal proud moment. Seeing the people that we help. Serving other people and it actually working is incredible.”
Because of Change Please’s focus on impact, Ezel sees huge potential in applying his model to other industries.
“People think every business has already been thought of, but they haven’t thought about it from a social perspective. There are so many other categories out there outside of food and beverage. It’s really exciting to see what we can disrupt.”
Ezel believes we’re at an inflection point. “If you’re a social business now, that’s a competitive commercial advantage,” he says. “But if you’re not one in five years, you’re going to be at a disadvantage.
Organisations with impact at their hearts will attract the best talent, retain employees, and also absolutely win more business.”
Reflecting on a whirlwind hour with Cemal Ezel, I leave with a strong sense that Change Please’s considerable achievements so far are just the beginning. That the possibilities for how his model could make a positive impact on the world, are endless.
And with his unique blend of infectious zeal and disruptive, impact-focussed thinking…he might just be right.
To find out more about Change Please visit www.changeplease.org