In this article, we chat with Matt Smith, Director of the Waffle House, Axminster, a non-profit cafe and community hub designed to tackle loneliness and unwantedness in the community.
Sometimes, the biggest impact can emerge from the smallest conversations. This is not only the ongoing ethos of the Community Waffle House, a community hub based in Axminster, East Devon, but also their origin story. In 2018, a conversation around a kitchen table between friends connected a passion for community work and a secret family recipe, and before long an idea was born: to help people have more conversations, with a side of waffles.
Matt Smith, one of the founding members, explains that he first got interested in loneliness around the time the Jo Cox commission report was released. With a background in linguistics, and at the time working in a winery, he began to feel drawn to community work. When the opportunity arose, along with friends Tim Whiteway and Sophie McClaren, he decided to take the plunge. They secured a site on the square in the centre of Axminster, with the landlord allowing them free use of the space until they began trading, and with no money and very little experience began work on the café. The word spread, the community rallied and when they opened their doors for the first time in April 2019, they sold out of waffles within four hours.
The concept is disarmingly simple: more waffles, less loneliness. The team aims to build, connect, and support their community through adventurous conversations, both within the café but also through their network of wider initiatives and activities. The site runs its own groups and events (including community waffling, tech Tuesday, youth nights and clubs that range from photography to Pokémon) as well as around fifteen other community clubs, offering support space to start-ups and local groups. They host live music, have free hot-desking space, run an outreach arm and work with local food banks, homeless organisations, and schools to support individuals throughout the community with connection and conversations at the core.
One of the most important factors is that the team are self-confessed ‘unprofessionals’. “We’re not looking to fix people or treat people, we’re just looking to connect, listen and have a conversation. The team can interact with people on a social, personal level, and we’re able to say, “who are you, what do you need?” That person-centred approach to things is really important” explains Matt. He believes that the real key to helping people through loneliness is removing the pathologising focus that a lot of larger organisations and statutory bodies foreground, and even doing away with the word loneliness itself which can be stigmatising and off-putting. “There’s a lot of ideas of how to stop loneliness, and there’s a sense that they just want it to be fixed” he says, “but who is going to access something that has been segregated off as just ‘for lonely people’? As soon as you put a label on something you run up against the really big stigma of loneliness and a lot of people will not access things that require them to admit that they’re lonely”. And it’s true – a quarter of UK adults report feeling ashamed about feelings of loneliness, with over a third saying that would never admit to feeling lonely.
The Waffle House, as a community interest company, has had ongoing relationships with their local authorities and councils and Matt speaks highly of those who have been invested and engaged. “Within East Devon, councillors have been brilliant in supporting us” he says. “As much as it’s the council as an entity, it’s the support of the individuals who have stopped to listen and supported us over the years”. He points, unsurprisingly to the importance that small yet meaningful interactions can have for organisations, explaining that one of the biggest difficulties has been dealing with high turnover at a town council level that hinders these relationships developing. “That can be really difficult because after building up such a good working relationship it can be challenging to start again. One of the most important things is those small conversations that are happening slightly outside of the normal channels that foster ongoing relationships”.
When discussing one of the most important ways that the Waffle House and other similar organisations tackling loneliness could be supported by local authorities, discussions of funding can’t be avoided. Matt is pragmatic about the squeeze being felt all the way up the chain but notes that diversifying funding and speaking with individuals working in the sector can mean that funds are directed in sustainable and viable ways. “It’s maybe easy to be cynical about these, but statutory organisations and councils have a key role” he tells me. “More and more, the responsibility is being put onto the voluntary and community sector through foodbanks, shelters and support organisations and that’s not being matched with a commitment to funding”. He notes that many organisations are crying out for support for core, administrative and running costs, instead of project-based funding which remains the norm. “I’m aware that often the money isn’t there, and that’s a broader, almost unsolvable issue but I do think that if there are ways that councils can really engage and invest in talking with people in the sector that the money can be directed to places that it’s really needed”.
Communication between organisations, councillors and statutory services is essential to ensuring that relationships continue to function. “We’re at an interesting time, pulling together the voluntary sector and statutory health care” Matt explains, and he’s keen to point out that often small organizations can miss out. “The perspective on the ground is that people are confused by the goings on at higher levels. It feels important to work together, but also ensuring that the systems that are created actually benefit us”. There is a sense that within statutory organisations there is more talk than action, with community organisations quicker to take on challenges and get stuck into solving them. “It’s a really fine balance between gathering resources and data, versus actually getting on and doing it when it’s happening on your doorstep”.
Creating stronger networks through social prescribing has been instrumental to the growth of the Waffle House and is something that is increasingly being incorporated elsewhere in other organisations looking to expand their reach and develop sustainable relationships in a community. “Early on, we formed a partnership with Ways 2 Wellbeing, a forerunner of the integrated care system” Matt says. “Currently, we’re working with social prescribing teams that collaborate with primary care networks in both Lyme Regis and the Seaton area as we’re right on the border”. This is an important referral stream and helps to get people involved in the Waffle House. “Our Monday group tends to be a landing pad for people, it’s a really informal social group – just drinks and a chat but means that people can take a step towards getting involved in community projects” he explains. “From there, those people can gradually get working towards being integrated in the community, whatever that might look like”.
As the Waffling work continues to expand, it is worth remembering that their work hinges on one simple thing; everyday conversations. Instead of talking about loneliness by trying to ‘fix’ it, treating lonely people as broken or damaged, the work across the hub focuses on creating small connections that are nurtured until they begin to flourish. “Loneliness is such an urgent thing, but it gets made into more of an abstract concept” says Matt as he speaks on the importance of grounding work in loneliness and focusing on the people that word can get labelled with. “We need to do something about ‘loneliness’, but we also need to do something about Theresa, who’s been at home for a week on her own with the television as company. Those are the same things in a way, but when you’re connected to it it’s possible to see the urgency a little bit more.” He emphasises that the intrinsic challenge of loneliness is that it’s messy and can’t be solved with quick-fix solutions; it’s a relational problem and solving that takes time. “There’s a concern when statutory services talk about quick fixes because we need to think about whether these interventions have the longevity – actually what you’re really saying is “that person needs a friend” and friends take a long time to form and are complicated.”
It’s clear from talking to Matt how passionate he is about the work he and the team do at the Waffle House, and that this passion has been instrumental in the hub cementing itself at the heart of the local community. The essential work that makes the Waffle House such a success can be mirrored in how councils might best participate and offer support; small steps, building relationships and offering stability for people – meeting organisations where they’re at and engaging with what might be the best help for them. Matt notes that it’s important for larger organisations (funders, councils, and statutory bodies) to recognise the agility and innovation happening on the hyperlocal level and that this can be fed up the chain to develop strong and sustainable support networks that link up local authorities, healthcare, and the voluntary sector. As the hub continues to develop (current new projects include an Autism Support and Breast-Feeding Support groups at their Seaton site as well as festive ventures now in full swing) it’s clear that the everyday, adventurous conversations are working. While tackling loneliness on a societal level requires seismic shifts in the way we understand and manage isolation, integration and health, on an individual level it might just take some waffling.