Margery Hookings is intrigued after receiving a phone call about an innovative project aimed at combating loneliness. She goes to East Devon to find out more.
The wonderful sweet smell of waffles is the first thing your senses pick up when you go through the door into one of Axminster’s newest cafes.
But this is more than just a café. It’s Waffle, a not-for-profit community enterprise that aims to get people talking. Together. Its existence was brought to my attention by a friend who used to live in my village before he and his wife moved to Axminster.
‘You must come down and take a look for yourself,’ he said on the phone. ‘I think you’ll like it. It’s quite remarkable.’ That was something of an understatement. The café itself is cool and inviting. And buzzing with people of all ages.
Incredibly, the idea for Waffle came to Matt Smith, 29, one of the café’s three directors, in a dream. But more of that later.
When I arrive, Tim Whiteway, 28, another director, is hard at work in the kitchen, creating the waffle dough. This is where the lovely smell is coming from. It’s intoxicating. The Liege waffles are made to a special recipe from the grandmother of fellow director, Sophie McLachlan, 31. She says: ‘My nan, who is from Belgium, was stopped by the Nazis when she was a little girl, but due to her having a certificate that she was christened, they let her go. They went into hiding and also hid Jews in their attic. My nan would always eat waffles with her family and when she moved to England it was a family tradition. I have always loved waffles, so my nan passed to me her secret recipe, which I’ve changed around to make even better. It’s great to be able to look at the public loving our waffles and enjoy a taste of Belgium.’
In the main street where the RSPCA charity shop used to be, Waffle is in the heart of community. Its aim is to tackle loneliness, isolation and exclusion by encouraging interaction across the community. Between 30 and 40 people have been involved in getting the café to where it is now. There is a team of seven staff, including the directors, who are all paid the real living wage, and around 12 volunteers.
One hundred per cent of Waffle’s profits are given away—this year to the Axminster Christmas illuminations fund (Light Up Axminster). Explains Matt: ‘Through the power of Waffle, we wanted to bring people closer together and to help the community. Our vision is to create and serve the highest quality, fresh Liege waffles, along with local and freshly-made coffee, cakes and juices. We also want to use Waffle as a community hub to forge unlikely friendships across the community of Axminster and help to combat loneliness and isolation through the intentional and creative use of waffle.’
All three directors are friends and grew up locally. Their connection is the Church. Says Matt: ‘Tim grew up here, he’s Axminster born and bred. He was always known at Axe Valley School as Tuck Shop Tim, exploiting the Jamie Oliver years. He did really well with it. He’s an entrepreneur, with a brilliant business mind. Sophie runs a charity in Kenya. She’s from Charmouth and went to Woodroffe. She’s always wanted to run something in the evening—but not a pub—that sells desserts. She had a Belgian nan who had this fabulous waffle recipe.’
Matt, who went to Colyton School, moved to Seaton at the age of nine. For six years, he worked in marketing for Lyme Bay Winery. ‘My passion is community,’ he says. ‘I very much enjoy the relationship between community and communication. For a long time, I had been looking at ways of bringing the community together. Cafes are, often inadvertently, prime spaces for social action and interaction. I wanted to see that done intentionally.’
So what about that dream?
‘I literally had a dream about starting a café. In my dream, it was Honiton, not Axminster. But I spoke to Tim and Sophie about it. And now here we are.’
The five-year lease on the shop began in November last year, with Waffle opening its doors in mid-April. The directors had conversations with other cafes in the town beforehand because they did not want to undercut them or compete.
‘We put everything we could into it,’ says Matt, who now lives with his young family above the café. ‘We didn’t have any loans and started as a community project. We did crowdfunding as well as applying for grants. We spoke to Axe Valley School and the police to see what was needed, looking at ways we could serve the community by taking our lead from the community.
‘Loneliness and isolation is a big thing for us. It’s a massive subject and we realised it exists in various forms in Axminster, in people of all ages. It’s a hugely chimeric thing and it’s hard to put your finger on it. We didn’t know exactly what to do but we didn’t want to do nothing. There is someone here at Waffle who is always available to talk. We have done training sessions with a counsellor on listening, so we’re equipped to fill the gap between unskilled listener and counsellor.’
Matt is a member of ‘The Fold’ Church in Axminster, while Tim belongs to Seaton Baptist Church and Sophie to Crewkerne Community Church. Says Matt: ‘Our motivation for Waffle has come through our faith. We have a love of people which we really wanted to demonstrate but we wanted to be very deliberate about Waffle not being a Christian “thing”. The important thing about Waffle for us is that it is a place where people can come with all sorts of views and be listened to. There is a lot of healing just from being listened to. The demand is there. It’s a place to chill and be unhurried.’
Waffle is open from 2pm until 10pm, Tuesday to Saturday. For more information, visit waffle.org.uk