Change Please: Brewing up social impact

A Change Please employee stands by his Change Please truck, smiling
Image from Change Please
The Virgin logo in red text on a white background
by Virgin
31 March 2019

Cemal Ezel's coffee company, Change Please, is one of the hundreds of businesses Virgin StartUp supports each year. But this isn't just any coffee...

Ezel established an award-winning co­ffee-roasting company and also found a way of making your daily coffee change lives.

The ethos of Change Please is straightforward: 100 per cent of its profits go towards helping to reduce homelessness. It does this by transforming members of the homeless community into skilled co­ffee baristas. Change Please provides full barista training, jobs that pay the living wage, and support with housing, bank accounts and mental wellbeing.

“We’re all so proud of what Cemal has achieved,” says Andy Fishburn, managing director of Virgin StartUp. “The practical support Change Please has given to homeless people obviously has a direct impact on individual lives. But what is impressive is how he has also managed to help change public perceptions of homelessness.

“The customers who are buying a coffee from a Change Please mobile coffee cart can engage with people who are homeless, and that is as important and as impactful as the direct support he provides.”

Lady wearing an apron that says change please and standing in front of a red London Bus
Image from Change Please

For Ezel, the decision to create a socially focused business was a no-brainer. “We’re only going to solve society’s problems by adopting an attitude of ‘business for good’ within our everyday transactions,” he explains. “We can’t rely on the government or on charitable donations; it has to be done through trade and business. It’s about empowering individuals to think about what they’re purchasing, and where their money’s going. Why not benefit someone or something with a purchase you were going to make anyway? I believe that will be our currency of the future.

“Future generations – millennials, students and school kids – are much more driven by social purpose,” he continues. “They expect their future to be in social business. So it’s fundamental to offer viable alternatives. With our co­ffee, we’re trying to showcase a model that doesn’t compromise on quality, taste or price, but it also gives back at the same time, and that’s how we can change and improve society.”

Change Please currently has sites in London, Manchester, Coventry and Cambridge, and Ezel is exploring Bristol and Edinburgh. Ezel is also considering opportunities in New York, having been put in touch with the mayor’s office there, a city with its own fair share of homelessness.

A Virgin Trains employee receives a cup of coffee from a Change Please barista
Image from Virgin Trains

Change Please also provides coffee for Virgin Trains, selling a unique blend that has been taste-tested by customers. The contract will help Change Please to train more than 100 people each year. Virgin Trains will also work with Change Please to include successful trainees in their recruitment process, offering them a chance to use their new barista skills in a job onboard.

“We’re in talks with Virgin Atlantic, and there are potential opportunities with Virgin Money and Virgin Active,” says Ezel. “All of these possibilities came out of a single decision to work with Virgin StartUp. I could never have dreamed that the relationship would be so positive.”

Changing business for good

So how did the winning partnership between Virgin StartUp and Change Please begin?

“We’ve worked with Cemal since 2015,” says Fishburn. “At that stage, he had one three-wheeled coffee cart, which had been funded by The Big Issue. He came to Virgin StartUp for business advice and funding, and we were able to help him explore how he could build Change Please into a viable and sustainable business.

One of the baristas from Change Please
Image from Change Please

“We helped him create his business plan and his cash flow forecast, and we provided him with £25,000 of funding to take his business to the next stage. He also received lots of mentoring over the next 12 months.”

But even the best entrepreneur can falter without focus. “Cemal has definitely grabbed every opportunity he’s been given, and I have so much respect for him for doing that,” says Fishburn. “When you’re starting out in business, so many things are competing for your attention that it’s easy to get side-tracked.

“From that first cart in London’s Borough Market, Cemal has always had a bigger vision. Change Please is one of those companies, and stories, at the sweet spot of where Virgin is. And that’s why I genuinely believe Change Please will be a great success on Virgin Trains and why, one day, you might see it in Virgin Hotels and the like. Let’s just see where it goes!”