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InFocus: Lisa Cathro of Zest Cafe

The Saint sat down with Lisa Cathro – owner of Zest café on South Street – to discuss her efforts to hire and train people with disabilities.

This is no new development at Zest Café, which will have been in business for 14 years this June. Throughout the last ten years, Lisa has been supporting people facing barriers to employment by providing work training placements at the café to build up skills that will increase future employability.

Lisa explains the conundrum. How do you get a job if you don’t have the experience on your CV? You need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience. For those that have been out of employment for a long time, Lisa tells us that this is the hardest part about trying to get a job.

Zest Café has previously offered work placements for Castle Huntly – an open estate prison located 7 miles from Dundee – and Supported Employment, an employment support service for people living in Fife with disabilities or health issues. Part of the reason Zest brands itself as a social enterprise – a business with a social mission – is because of these temporary placements which aim to improve the future job search and bolster the resume of people struggling to find long term employment.

To further this cause, Lisa applied to the Kickstart Scheme created by the UK Government which provides funding to create new jobs for 16 to 24 years old who are on Universal Credit and are at risk of long-term unemployment.

The Kickstart Scheme covers 100% of the National Minimum Wage for 25 hours per week for a total of 6 months. A £1,500 grant is paid to the employer for each job created under the scheme to cover setup costs, employability support for the young person, IT equipment, uniform, or PPE. The scheme was launched by chancellor Rishi Sunak in September 2020, in time for the expected end to furlough, with the target of creating 250,000 new jobs.

Lisa tells The Saint, “The kickstart scheme came in at the right time. It’s a great scheme for us because we were already offering work placements with Castle Huntly, Fife Council and teaching and training with the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions).”

Lisa has taken on 4 people under the scheme, staging it over time so that each ‘Kickstarter’ could settle in before the next arrived, and that the team at Zest would not struggle by try- ing to train everyone all at once. Lisa explains that a 6-month placement is a good amount of time to allow the new team members to settle in and acquire in-depth knowledge of the job.

She adds, “When you have got people who come from a more chaotic background or need a bit more extra time to get comfortable in the environment, you need time to learn how to adjust.”

This stems from Lisa’s belief that it is easier to learn, or only possible to start learning once you feel confident and comfortable in your environment.

Before the scheme, Zest took on employees from diverse backgrounds. Lisa says, “We don’t actively look for people with disabilities, what we’re looking for is people who are willing to learn.”

She explains that for people with disabilities, showing up for a job interview is a barrier in itself and gave the example that an unfamiliar place might be stressful for a young person with autism – this makes a good sign for an employer.

Lisa adds, “We judge everybody on the same merit. Willpower, resilience, and willingness to learn are the key things we are look- ing for. It just happens that a lot of disabled people have those things because you’re problem solving on a daily basis – problem solving your way through everything.”

The Saint asks Lisa about the misconceptions of hiring people with disabilities. The Labour Force Survey in the UK revealed that disabled people were over a third less likely to be employed than non-disabled people. In 2021, the employment rate for disabled people aged 16 to 64 was 52.7% compared with 81.0% for non-disabled people according to the government’s official statistics.

Lisa says, “People want to help, but I think it’s lack of confidence in the managers, it’s not out of badness. Employers might think they don’t have the skills or that they will let the person down be- cause they don’t know enough.”

The Saint asks Lisa whether this is a valid concern or a misconception. She tells us, “Managers are going to make mistakes. Thinking that you have to hide your mistakes is a rookie manager thing. The person who knows the best about what will work for them and what won’t is that person.”

In this way, the team at Zest are encouraged to give feedback for what is difficult and what works for them to make the job design better.

Another reason employers might be nervous of employing people with disabilities is the assumption that disability adjustments will be expensive. Lisa says, “Businesses can betight on money and a lot of people assume disability adjustment is always a big payment. It’s sometimes fear that blows things out of proportion.”

At Zest, a pair of special earplugs which filter out certain frequencies cost £20 and are used by one Kickstarter who was having sensory issues due to an overload of noises. A café can be overwhelming or exhausting for people who process every sound because of a whole host of different noises and distractions at any given time.

This example of disability adjustment was not costly but changed everything for the Kickstarter, who is calmer and able to work better as a result.

As a result of involving the employees in the process of improving the job design at Zest, Lisa has seen “loads” of change within her business. One Kickstarter has severe dyslexia to the point that it has stopped him from doing certain tasks.

Lisa says, “It’s been good for us because it has helped us analyse our systems and how we do things. From that, we went and recorded our staff handbooks and contracts into audio format. Now, if someone can’t read that easily, they have the option to listen to the contract in sections so that they know what their rights are and how they work.”

A condition for businesses who take up the Kickstart Scheme is to provide employability support for the young person. The Saint asked Lisa how she has supported the Kickstarters at Zest.

Lisa chose to use the hospitality training platform Flow which offers modules on health and safety, food hygiene, allergen training and GDPR that is fully endorsed and compliant with industry standards and legislation. The platform was chosen by Lisa because bigger businesses such as the Old Course Hotel, Costa Coffee, Dishoom, and Gleneagles also use the same training which might help with future employability and build up their CVs.

Unusually, Lisa made each Kickstarter undergo a short course on employment law. Lisa says, “Although employment law is not directly relevant to their job, I want all of my staff to be aware of their rights when they leave.”

Lisa adds, “If you’re an American student who has just left home, do you know all the rights you have in the UK? Some employers take advantage of that by not paying holiday or sick pay.”

The team of 19 at Zest is made up of students and non-students, Lisa says it is important that every member knows how to stand up for themselves on what they can do as an employee.

The Saint asks Lisa, what makes Zest different from other cafes and businesses. Lisa responds that Zest has a different way of working where people development is at the core. She says, “The rest of it doesn’t matter if you’re people aren’t functioning well. If you don’t have a good culture then customers will pick up on that.”

Employees are encouraged to inform members if they are having a bad day.

Lisa says, “If you have depression or anxiety, most people try to hide it. We want you to tell us so we can change the job design and allocate you tasks before you arrive. Dealing with customers might be too much if it has been difficult to get out the door.”

Part of Zest’s success may lie in its size and tight knit community. The Saint asks Lisa whether she thought a bigger company would be able to achieve the same level of support for its employees.

Lisa tells The Saint she had thought about this and how a second unit would work. She says, “It goes back to the culture. If you do enough training with your managers, then it would be achievable to scale it up. As long as you always tie it back to your mission.”

Lisa wants to implement areas in the shop for people that are hard of hearing. Currently one sound system connected by multiple speakers plays music which covers the entire shop floor, but Lisa would like the option to have a quieter section at the back or the front of the café.

Lisa also updated the signage for the disabled toilet at the very back of the shop. Lisa had found customers were repeatedly trying to open the door before they realised the toilet was occupied. It took 3 months to get the right signage and multiple times the door handle was forcibly removed from the door.

First, Lisa installed a green and red light on the wall, with one on and the other off. Lisa assumed that this would be enough to indicate to customers whether the toilet was busy. As this was not the case, labels of “Vacant” and “Occupied” were printed beside the corresponding green and red light. Afterwards Lisa realised the signs were not large enough, so the font size was blown up. Now the signs are very visible as soon as you enter the shop.

Lisa says, “The plan was so people would see the sign from the top of the ramp. By the time they’ve walked to the toilet they would process the message and understand it. This was no problem for people with disabilities or learning disabilities.” It was everyone else that was the problem. People who are not used to having to problem solve on a daily basis. At present, the signage which occupies the entire wall, seems to be doing its job.

Lisa says, “It’s good for businesses to be representative of the community.”

Lisa points out the fallacy of some employers, “You want diversity, but if you don’t actively pursue diversity, you’re not going to get it.”

In this regard, Zest Café con- tinues to provide an example to students and other businesses.

Image: Zest Cafe

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