The Neighbourhood Kitchen of South is a community kitchen in the Afrikaander neighbourhood in Feijenoord where home cooks prepare diverse cuisines together, mostly for caterings. As of 2013, the Kitchen is an independent, grant-free social enterprise. However, it started as one of the several social projects of the Freehouse Foundation in 2010. This foundation was set up by a professional artist, Jeanne van Heeswijk. It seeks to empower the community of the Afrikaander neighbourhood socio-economically and culturally. Also, the foundation aims to strengthen the economic independence of the neighbourhood by involving local residents in local economic activities and by generating activities that take the qualities of these residents as a starting point. Participants, local residents and local businesses collaborate to generate cultural, social and economic capital in the community. Hereby, all parties are thought to benefit.
Participants of the Neighbourhood Kitchen are 10 to 15 local women with limited working experience who experience multiple barriers to participation in both outdoor activities and (paid and unpaid) work. Both the cultural background of the participants and the dishes they prepare reflect the cultural diversity among the residents in the Afrikaander neighbourhood. The Kitchen houses chefs of at least 12 different ethnic groups. At present, the initiative has four waiters (of which a few men), a marketing and communication officer and an administrative officer. Participants are aged between 20 and 58 years old and work as volunteers. They receive € 120 for 6.5 hours of work a week at the Neighbourhood Kitchen, but often work 20 hours a week. Since 2013, the Neighbourhood Kitchen is run by the current manager. She works at the Kitchen 7 days a week and gets paid for 3. The initiative only allows participants who are committed to the job and have time for and affinity with cooking and catering.
The main goals of the Neighbourhood Kitchen are to stimulate local entrepreneurship through cultural production and to increase social mobility of the target group. The initiative manages to achieve these goals through the following strategies. First, participants are trained to become professional cooks and start a catering business. Participants improve their cooking skills by receiving training from fellow participants. Taking part in the company teaches them about business management. All participants are treated as professional employees: they are given tasks where they are held accountable for. Second, volunteers are encouraged to set up a local business of their own or to join an existing one. The manager of the Neighbourhood Kitchen looks for such opportunities through her own social network. In the previous year, 5 participants have moved into paid work in this way. Third, the Kitchen buys most of its materials at local shops and the local market to support local entrepreneurs. Finally, by anticipating on their interests and needs, the business seeks to attract customers from more prosperous neighbouring areas (e.g. Katendrecht and Kop van Zuid) to profit from their wealth.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
For the Neighbourhood Kitchen, cultural diversity is a selling point. The main product that the business sells is its diverse ethnic food. As an interviewed director of the Kitchen explains:
“If we would only have a Moroccan or a Pakistani chef, we would not be home to all those [diverse] cuisines […] It is the diversity that enables us to deliver the 12 cuisines […] and all the variations to those [cuisines], because of the collaborations and differences between the participants”.
The Neighbourhood Kitchen both builds on and contributes to the cultural richness of the neighbourhood. By doing so, it promotes diversity as an economic value and an intrinsic quality of the neighbourhood.
Main factors influencing success and failure
The Neighbourhood Kitchen has evolved from a social project into an enterprise that increases social mobility among participants and local entrepreneurship significantly. The following factors contribute to the success. First, by educating participants and letting them educate each other, participants achieve new skills and knowledge about cooking and each other in a fast and cheap way. Second, by selling gastronomic and ethnic diversity the business encourages both workers and customers of the Neighbourhood Kitchen to understand these diversities positively. Third, by building on the different talents of the volunteers, the initiative gives voice to a group of people who were previously excluded from paid or unpaid work and acknowledges and promotes their value for the economy. Fourth, according to an interviewed director and manager, the shared responsibility among participants over a catering order generates a connection that enables participants to bond with one another, despite of their different skills, knowledge and taste. Finally, the leadership qualities of the manager contribute to the businesses’ success as well. The manager treats all participants as equals. But she also stimulates participants to develop their distinctive qualities within the initiative and to work in partnerships. By using her own social networks when enabling women to move into paid work, she makes sure that the Neighbourhood Kitchen can remain to profit from the woman’s success. She can for example hire former volunteers at low cost when the Neighbourhood Kitchen has a shortage of staff.
The main difficulties that the initiative faces relate to finance. The Neighbourhood Kitchen is a starting business with few reserve capitals. Although it would like to reward participants, it does not make enough profit yet to pay them or the manager a (full-time) salary. Also, the manager would like to improve both the quality of cooking classes and supplies (e.g. cookware) to improve the quality of the workforce (and hence their opportunities) and caterings. Although the business acts as a (re)integration site for many participants, it does not want to receive subsidies for this, because it might then be forced to allow people who are obliged to work in the company by the City but who are not committed to it.
The Neighbourhood Kitchen makes participants into (independent) economic actors by acknowledging the economic value of their talents and by developing their professional skills. The initiative stimulates the local economy by offering diverse foods, buying local, collaborating with local entrepreneurs and attracting more affluent customers of neighbouring areas. By using ethnic diversity as a selling point, the initiative communicates a positive understanding of diversity. The methods of learning through exchange, treating volunteers as professionals, working towards a shared goal, and moving participants into better jobs via the managements’ social network contribute particularly to the initiatives success. The main challenge that the Neighbourhood Kitchen faces is to balance the economic and social goals of the enterprise, namely to be profitable and function as a training site as well.
Images from top: Melissa Lee, Utrecht University; and De Wijkkeuken van Zuid