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A conversation with Abigail Murray, Operations Manager at The Chatty Cafe Scheme.

Posted on 3 July 2024

Below is an extract from the book Hospitality Vibes. Proposing an alternative future for the hospitality industry where people can co-create positive energy. By Meng-Mei Maggie Chen , PhD at EHL Hospitality Business School.

Please tell us about the Chatty Café Scheme.

We deliver services that aim to reduce loneliness and social isolation as much as possible.

How long have you been working for the Chatty Café Scheme?

It will be three years this August (2023), and the scheme started in 2017.

What triggered your founder, Alex Hosky, to start the Chatty Café Scheme?

Our founder, Alex Hoskyn, was actually experiencing loneliness herself. She just had a newborn baby. She spent many, many days on her own, walking around the town centre where she lived. She didn’t necessarily want to go to baby groups. She wanted to have a sort of human interaction. She just visited the same café day after day.

She was feeling fed up in this one particular café she was in. A gentleman sat at a different table on his own, looking fed up. Similarly, another person sat at a different table on his own. Alex thought, oh, wouldn’t it be good if cafés designated a table as a chatty café table and thought the name ‘Chatter & Natter’ table might sound good. This table would give people permission to get together and chat. If, at that moment, they felt it could have been of benefit to them. So that’s really where the idea came from. She approached a few cafés in England to ask if they would be interested in trying this idea. And it’s very much grown from that.

It very much came from her own experience of loneliness. For people who may live on their own or do not have an extensive social network, a conversation with someone can really help them go from feeling invisible to visible. Even these simple interactions, chatting about the weather or TV programs, can make a big difference for people who might spend a number of days on their own.

What should business owners consider if they want to start their initiatives to foster social connections? How does the Chatty Café Scheme help business owners start?

We work with a variety of different types of businesses (independent cafés, chain cafés, pubs, libraries, garden centres, coworking spaces, and even cafés in leisure centres) that offer Chatter & Natter tables, and the majority are cafés. Some of these businesses are community-focused, and the Chatter & Natter table is one of their community activities. For example, these companies might have a book club on a Monday and Chatter & Natter table on a Tuesday.

However, most other businesses we work with join the Chatty Café Scheme and offer only one community initiative – Chatter & Natter tables. We send them out a pack to get started, which includes the yellow table signs, posters, and leaflets. We support them in trying to find a local person to come forward to volunteer to host the table because that would move so much faster. One hour a week, the same person will be a welcoming, friendly face at the table. So that if customers want to go over to chat, there’s somebody there to welcome them.

For some volunteering roles, we have to carry out police checks on the person. Our volunteers are carrying out this role in a public space, so they actually don’t need to be police-checked. Yet, we do run our own checks on the volunteers. Volunteer applicants have to fill out an application form. We do an ID check with them, and they must attend our safeguarding training. The Chatty Café Scheme is responsible for all the volunteer training, not the businesses’s responsibility. The company only needs to be open to letting us use a table within their space and support any promotion to raise awareness.

If businesses only put a sign saying this is a chatty café table, will it work without volunteers? 
We think the role of the volunteer is absolutely crucial. If the sign is just on a table and it doesn’t have any structure, and nobody’s there to host it, it just gets lost nine times out of ten. It’s too unstructured. You need a person.

Sometimes, we can’t find a local person to volunteer, so a staff member will actually take on that role. During the dedicated hour, the staff sits there with a coffee and is open to chat with people. The members of the public must know that the chatty café table will be available at a specific time of the day, and there will always be somebody there at that time. It’s crucial.

I know the value of the volunteer. I believe that if the hospitality industry wants to attract young talents in the future, the jobs need to be meaningful. Hospitality businesses can offer not only coffee but also social or human interaction.
Yes, and younger people do tend to be a bit more socially minded.

Exactly, and I believe that, actually, the staff needs to take on the volunteer role.

That’s brilliant. It’s really easy for us if that’s what the staff wants to do. What tends to happen is a staff member will start hosting the table. When a few people start attending, they often agree to become the host, and the staff member can step away. That’s how it sustains itself.

Coworking spaces host lots of events, but realize that if they organize everything for their clients, people don’t take them seriously. Instead, asking clients to organize events by themselves tends to contribute to the event’s success. What you said was very interesting because you said that the staff can get it started, and later on, the community can take over hosting.

That is how we see it working. Obviously, the biggest challenge is getting somebody to start it off to get it going. It would help if you had someone to lead it.

What are the challenges for the Chatty Café Scheme?

Definitely, recruiting volunteers and funding will always be challenges. We are a non-profit organization, so we have to apply for grant funding; that’s a massive challenge to keep us going.

The organizations join us by paying £30 per year; that’s just enough to cover marketing costs (table signs, leaflets, etc.). We charge very little because the model can easily be copied. We keep the price low so that it is very accessible for businesses to sign up and join.

What is your ultimate vision?

Our founder’s vision would be that Chatter & Natter tables are just like an everyday part of café culture. Anyone could find out where they are and go on our map, find one near to where they live, and go along to it. That’s kind of what she would have loved to have seen when she set it up.

It’s very much to keep going because we don’t just do the tables in cafés. We also run a telephone friendship service and virtual chatty cafés on Zoom. Our vision is to have those three pathways to tackle loneliness so that people can access our services in person, in a café, on the telephone, and online.

Furthermore, the Chatty Café scheme in Australia is doing really well. We are in the initial stages of setting it up in the USA. It’s very much about continuing to expand in all three areas and attracting the finance to do that, which is ultimately going to be the biggest challenge.

The United States Surgeon General issued a report in May 2023 and stated loneliness is an epidemic in the United States. But in the UK, you already recognized loneliness as an epidemic.

We’ve recognized it as a big problem here. Our government released a strategy to tackle loneliness about five years ago. We actually had a loneliness minister, someone specifically with the portfolio, to look at this problem. Loneliness can manifest in so many different ways and lead to more severe health problems. The rising technology and COVID accelerated these problems that were already there. We’re positioning ourselves very much as a preventative service on the issue of loneliness, which potentially could stop somebody from getting to a crisis point by simply having conversations.

People think about what the government, schools, medical professionals, and NGOs can do to reduce loneliness, but the business society should contribute as well. I do not mean monetization; monetization is a side benefit. The main benefit is reducing loneliness and contributing to the well-being of the community – a higher purpose for a café. I like your founder’s vision that it is going to be a different café culture. It’s a new culture or a new perspective to see cafés or libraries.

Yes, as places to connect. When businesses join, we’re very clear that they don’t have to offer free drinks.

We know that they are running a business. Increasing footfall for businesses through hosting Chatter & Natter tables is a big incentive to join the scheme.

We present the chatty cafés as practical solutions to a national epidemic. We have to apply for grant funding because we want to make our model as accessible as it can be for businesses.

Do you have anything else that you didn’t tell me but want to tell me?

I think it’s excellent that you are exploring these ideas within your role within the hospitality sector.