Starting Step is a social enterprise and charity that is launching its first hospitality training venue within the grounds of Perth Prison. The chief executive tells Jennie Milsom why the project is important for the community.
What is the aim of the project?
Our mission is to improve the life chances of those who suffer from social disadvantage and, in so many cases, have taken the wrong turn. I want to use hospitality and horticulture as a route to future employment for those with whom we work. We will give them the tools to be the best they can be and use innovation to inspire individuals to achieve their potential. This will be done while reducing our impact on the environment and lowering our carbon footprint.
You recently got the green light for planning permission for the Yew Tree restaurant – what is the next stage?
We need to complete a building warrant application and then the bid and invite to tender. Once we award the tender we can begin the renovation. Funding the renovation is the biggest challenge.
How will the business model work – are you inviting commercial operators to tender?
We will be inviting commercial operators to tender for the renovation, but Starting Step will run the restaurant. As a social enterprise we are committed to our mission and we know we can deliver it and be sustainable. We can provide an excellent service to the public who eat at the Yew Tree while delivering innovative training for our students.
You'll open first as a café and then look to open as a fine-dining vegan restaurant – what made you decide to run a vegan restaurant?
I have been a committed vegan for many years, so it was impossible for me to consider anything else. I am passionate about the benefits of a plant-based diet. I believe that the time is here when other hospitality outlets are looking to grow their menus and they will need innovative chefs who can deliver on taste without the reliance on animal products. We want to create a plant-based menu that will excite our customers and showcase the incredible versatility of a vegan diet.
You are partnering with the Scottish Prison Service, HMP Perth and HMP Castle Huntly – how do those organisations work together and benefit each other?
I have been fortunate to work with the Scottish Prison Service in my past roles and know that their intentions to support their inmates can sometimes be overtaken by the need to conform to processes and procedures. This is inevitable and frustrating; as a separate entity we are able to bring a different approach to empowering and supporting those people who are trying to change their future. Working together, we can change the lives of those who have taken a wrong turn and want to get back on track.
Working together, we can change the lives of those who have taken a wrong turn and want to get back on track
How will the project support and benefit the wider community?
We will be a Living Wage employer who cares. We will use local suppliers wherever possible; our garden project will grow sufficient food for us and other like-minded projects. As for the wider community, I believe a plant-based café-bistro can bring enormous benefits: to the overall health of our customers; the planet; the environment; and animal welfare. One of our aims is to reduce offending behaviour and the project will bring enormous benefits to the wider community and the public purse.
What are the operational challenges of running a business inside a maximum-security prison?
The Scottish Prison Service is incredibly supportive of the enterprise and has agreed that we can use a building that is on its land but outside the security fence. This allows us to support the great work happening within the prison without disrupting the daily routine.
To work with people with convictions is a challenge, but it's a rewarding one. To support people in changing their behaviour and empowering them to build a future for themselves and their families is worth all the challenges we may face.
What are you most looking forward to over the coming weeks and months as the project develops?
I am impatient to start working with our students and to introduce our customers to scrummy, nutritious and exciting food. We are also looking for chefs who would like to be involved with us and, perhaps, share their challenges and triumphs with our students.
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