There are some very unique jobs and people employed in retail. In this new series of posts Retail Insider will profile some of the more unusual jobs or innovative employment practices across the sector.

We continue the series by talking to Max Dubiel, founder of Redemption Roasters, about training and employing young offenders as bean roasters and baristas in his coffee company.

Max Dubiel: Founder Redemption Roasters

Dubiel was quietly minding his own business as a coffee wholesaler called Black Sheep with a steadily growing base of clients when he was approached completely out of the blue several years ago by the Ministry of Justice. They wanted to know if he might be interested in helping reduce re-offending rates for youngsters by introducing barista training in some of their institutions.

Dubiel and business partner Ted Rosner decided that, on the grounds that there was zero chance of a Ministry-run proposal ever actually happening, they would put together a totally “outlandish’ proposal and see what happened. So they offered to actually start roasting coffee beans in HMP Aylesbury. And to their amazement the proposal was accepted and implemented.

Having rebranded as Redemption Roasters to reflect their new focus on social good, the roastery was launched in 2016. However, Dubiel and Rosner quickly realised something that as working wholesalers they had never before considered, namely that coffee was quite a privileged area to get into requiring specialist skills and that many of the young offenders they were going to train would never even have considered working in a coffee shop as they do not typically come from families that ever went to them.

Company on a mission: Posters on the wall at Redemption Roasters

But attracting applicants was by no means their only worry. Getting the roastery infrastructure into the prison in the first place was extremely difficult. As Dubiel puts it, with a prison “you have to file a request to put a nail into the wall – and that can take three months” but HMP Aylesbury did pay for the fit out while Redemption Roasters bought the equipment. He is full of praise for the Ministry of Justice, Minister for Prisons, and the prison authorities for their commitment and drive to make the project happen. The Governor especially was a helpful advocate and gave over a disused staff mess area to Redemption for their roastery.

Why young offenders and not older inmates? Dubiel maintains that the likelihood of reforming youngsters is higher, getting them into the retail and leisure industry before they become institutionalised career criminals. Plus of course, coffee shops/bars are not staffed by the middle aged but predominantly by the young!

The roastery in action in HMP Aylesbury

The scheme has been extremely popular in HMP Aylesbury where most of the other training schemes involve heavy manual or building work and the roastery now roasts two tonnes of ethically sourced coffee beans a week. It is constantly oversubscribed and has a very good reputation in the prison especially as inmates know there is a chance of employment with Redemption Roasters after release. As Dubiel notes “in prison reputation is everything and the inside guys talk to the outside guys”.

Once on the scheme Dubiel admits they are very strict and pretty much operate a ‘one strike and you’re out’ regime – possible because of the scheme’s massive oversubscription. As other employers of ex-prisoners, such as Timpsons, often note by investing in this niche employment market the big plus is that you are getting a great deal of loyalty.  As Dubiel puts it the youngsters are “loyal to the first person who taught them something”.

Equally Redemption Roasters certainly seems to have tapped into the willingness of both landlords and the public to invest in a good news story. The company is about to open its fourth coffee bar unit in Broadgate which joins existing portfolio in King’s Cross, Lamb’s Conduit Street and Barbican. BNP Paribas has just become a corporate client via the Procurement For Good initiative and leaseholders give the company very favourable rates. Plus of course, it’s very good coffee otherwise all the CSR value in the world wouldn’t make people buy it!

Redemption Roaster’s site in the new Kings Cross Coal Drop Yard development

As for coffee-buying customers who generate retail’s 25% share of group sales, the founder certainly tries to make them aware through posters on the wall and cards on the table. And the 75% from the wholesale business shows how effective the story can be for the commercial sector – Redemption Roasters’ client base is up from 30 to 110 clients although he admits some clients don’t advertise the fact that the beans are roasted in a prison at all while others talk of nothing else.

And how many people does it really help? Well, the eight-week paid training programme is now live in several prisons including Bullingdon and Spring Hill meaning that around 90 young men have gone/are going through the training while inside.

So far Redemption has placed or hired 12 of them upon their release. And just added to the mix is the scheme in Wormwood Scrubbs which has the major advantage of seeing all its inmates released into London where the main market for barista employment would be. Meanwhile, after the company was included as a case study in a Ministry of Justice strategy paper, prison governors all around the country have been getting in touch.

Thing of beauty: Redemption Roaster’s kit

However the process is not without its difficulties. If pressed Dubiel admits that “working in a prison is a huge challenge” which involves a small company used to making snap decisions having to “slow down to the pace of a juggernaut”. Logistically everything revolves around security, of course, so if the pallet company arrives to pick up the next consignment of coffee to take to the distribution hub in Sussex and there is a lockdown in place then the entire day’s timetable has gone. In addition the staff in his London units had to be persuaded to spend large parts of their working life in an intense prison atmosphere some distance away from their homes.

But while he concedes that it can be difficult to measure the benefits, Dubiel is adamant that dealing with ex-offenders is “saving the rest of society so much and the individual also”.