The Long Table: there IS such a thing as a free lunch

The Long Table cafe - customers sit at long tables in a barn setting

The Long Table in Stroud has created an inspiring social enterprise out of pay-as-you-can dining that wasn’t beaten by the pandemic, says Natalie Burfitt, CMS pioneer hubs coordinator.

When John the baptizer pointed out Jesus to some of his mates, a couple of them got nosy and trailed after Jesus, wanting to know where he lived. “Come and see”, Jesus said to them, all casual. Because there’s nothing like a ‘come and see’ to really get in to it, is there? Making the time to go and see what others pioneers are up to on their home turf, talking it over with them, seeing it for yourself – it’s a stimulating practice that forces you to reflect on your own pioneering in a different way.

A few of us from CMS Britain hub did this recently. We visited The Grace Network in Stroud, Gloucestershire and spent time chatting with Rev Ed Sauven, Jeremy Nottingham and Will Mansell who all play different roles in the work of this group of social enterprises.

Will is the network’s founder and he explained how Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4 is the directing ethos of all they do. This is a summons to a better way of living, an invitation that all those who come and work in the enterprises can get on board with, whether or not they profess faith of any kind.

Jeremy helps to mentor and steer the enterprises from a business perspective while Ed acts as abbot to the Order of Grace, the Christian community embedded in all that’s happening.

Their roles sound defined but there’s messy crossover – an apt reflection of how this entrepreneurial activity at the right-hand end of the pioneer spectrum works.

It’s a blend of faith-driven intention that shapes business activism and there are no clear distinctions between what’s Christian practice and what isn’t – the kind of hinterland pioneering often inhabits.

One of the enterprises that’s attracted a lot of attention locally is The Long Table. This is pay-as-you-can dining, putting hospitality at the centre of the old mill where the businesses are located.

We enjoyed good coffee and then lunch in the hipster atmosphere, seated at the literal long tables that are key to how the cafe aims to bring people together and build a sense of community.

It operates a policy of providing good, locally sourced food for everyone. If you can’t afford to pay anything, you ask for a ‘meal for Tom’ and the token (that everyone takes to the counter to claim food after you’ve made your payment) is yours, no questions asked.

One of the inspiring stories of The Long Table is its response during the pandemic.

The Friday in March 2020 before lockdown was announced, Will and a couple of others sat down at increasingly abandoned dining tables with the realisation that soon the business would fold and that vulnerable people were about to struggle to eat. On a piece of the brown cake-wrapping paper, they sketched out a plan to switch the business to producing frozen meals.  Their deal on a week’s meals became the model that other larger producers copied.

You can read a report all about this project on the Diocese of Gloucester’s website. The prophetic and the practical collided in a business model that was beneficial to thousands. They read the landscape and acted quickly and imaginatively in response. It’s food for the soul to see pioneering like this in action.

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