Strip The Willow – Sheffield Business with Heart
Sheffield Unchained editor, Tricia Gough, visits Strip The Willow, a Sheffield gallery and cafe off London road which is all about the big heart of community.
Not to be fooled by the understated exterior, I discover that the sprawling piles of dishevelled furniture which surround the building and line either side of the corner entrance are really modern day treasures. “Strip it, don’t tip it” and “From wasteful to tasteful” neatly summarise the upcycling ethos of this inspiring Sheffield social enterprise.
Local resident, Jon Johnson, tells me the business he started in November 2013 “came about by accident”. His retirement plan after a career with the South Yorkshire police did not include volunteering long hours, 6 days a week to set up a shop for “bespoke furniture, upcycled goodies, great food, art, crafts, events” and much, much more.
Jon’s retirement plan was to keep himself busy doing low cost decorating and gardening jobs. However, as a self-confessing hoarder, he says:
The garden got full as people kept giving me stuff to take to the tip or throw away that was far too good to chuck out.
As these things often happen, the business idea was born out of a late evening post-pub walk home with friends. They passed the derelict property which “was an eyesore” and had been standing empty for over 9 months, and “saw potential”. After finding the landlord, signing the lease and collecting keys, Jon says they were given 6 weeks to dispose of 250 tyres and make the interior habitable:
People started appearing out of the woodwork to help and volunteer. The support and encouragement we have had since, and just people coming forward, wanting to help – it’s been amazing!
They started with building a workshop and things escalated from there…
Originally we were just going to have a kettle to one side and ask people to put a quid in for a cup of tea. Then we looked at the walls and said ‘Oh, we could put some art up on these walls’.
Local small businesses stepped in to help and a coffee machine was borrowed from Buster’s Coffee Co. on Glossop road, who gave them some basic barista training to start their refurbished upstairs cafe going.
There have just been so many coincidences! Everything has fallen into place at the right time. The right people walked through the door to solve the problems as they have come up and it just snowballed from there.
We had 5500 volunteer hours last year, which is bigger than a lot of charities. I think people just like working here, because it’s a nice environment. It’s fairly low key and relaxed.
“Strip The Willow” is the name of a Hebridean weaving folk dance and aptly depicts the inclusive and organic ethos of the business. The mission statement “To do business the right way” says it all.
We are open to anybody. We are here for customers – we are not here to make money
The business now employs 8 people; 4 in the workshop, others in the shop and cafe. There are 2 apprenticeships and an 8 week work experience placement available. Jon explains:
A lot of our volunteers have come because they were at a loose end and have ended up looking for part time work or have gone on into full time paid jobs. We are always happy to give references for people. Life just throws you a bit of a double dice sometimes.
Its part of our responsibility to help people move on. We’ve had some absolutely lovely people. Some of the exhibitors have just stayed and become personal friends and directors of the company. Troubadours of the Revolution!
Most of the time it’s just having the opportunity to be doing something useful and putting something back into the community, that gives people a sense of self-worth and a boost to go and look for more work.
Jon says he has learnt how to run the business as it has grown. Apart from one small grant and a bursery through the “School for Social Entrepreneurs” from The Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme on which Jon currently has a place, the business is now self-sustaining. Organisations like the Sheffield Social Enterprise Network and the Sheffield Antiques Quarter also provide support.
The Strip the Willow workshop offers bespoke furniture at charity shop prices. “If we can imagine it in wood we will have a go at it”. Repairs and property maintenance are also offered with prices kept as low as possible. Most of the materials have been donated or have had former lives as floor boards, joists, woodern pallets; reclaimed from skips and rubbish dumps they are transformed into “gold dust”.
The upstairs cafe is a bright, cosy space with a sofa, assorted tables, chairs and a resident guitar just begging to be played. Alongside is an art and crafts gallery. This is the venue for an array of regular events; among them Crafty Friends offer informal social events with skills-sharing in knitting , crochet, embroidery, rug ragging, textile art and felting (often combined with wine-tasting sessions) and Troubadours of the Revolution! offer an “open mic night for a free and fair future” with poetry, spoken word and music.
When asked about plans for the future Jon lists; looking for a bigger factory unit to store equipment; finding more retired or out of work people with skills to share and obtaining funding to put on more adult education courses. He says:
The longer term aims of the business plan are that we will have more than one “Strip The Willow” by the time I finish with this, whether that’s in Sheffield or we look to spread it wider as it is easy to replicate.
It’s a labour of love and it’s quite intense, but I’m enjoying it. It’s well worth doing. Hopefully we can shame some of the bigger businesses into being socially responsible as well!