Award-winning garden co-op for disabled workers to open cafe

On Christmas Eve an award-winning plant nursery, 60% of whose workers have disabilities, completed the purchase of Victorian lodge house which it plans to convert into a traditional tea room with the help of a loan from Co-operative & Community Finance.

For Bishopwearmouth Co-operative, in Sunderland, this was the perfect end to a very successful year when the relatively new business won the Social Enterprise Award at the Sunderland Echo Portfolio 2018 business awards.

The co-operative has been running a 5,200m2 garden centre near the city centre since April 2017. It also provides landscaping and floristry services. It offers work-based placements and volunteering opportunities to adults with learning disabilities, physical disabilities and enduring mental health needs. There are currently 16 employees with disabilities and 10 additional staff.

Buying the Victorian lodge house, which is adjacent to the garden centre, will allow Bishopwearmouth Co-operative to start a new income stream by running a traditional tea room for local residents and visitors to the garden centre and nearby crematorium. 

“There is a lot of work to be done,” said managing director Shaun Donnelly. “New flooring, new wiring, new kitchen, new toilets and making the whole premises accessible. There is a lovely walled garden that needs landscaping. With luck the Tea Room should be open in June.”

The project has the full support of Sunderland City Council which has been nurturing Bishopwearmouth for many years. It had been operating ‘at arms length’ from the local authority since 2009 but in March 2016 it took the important step of registering as a co-operative community interest company.

“We want everyone to feel that they have ownership of the venture and have a say in what happens,” said Shaun. “We want to have a good cross section of the staff on the board. Also we want it to be a lasting asset to the community.”

Ian Rothwell, Investment Manager at Co-operative & Community Finance, said “When I visited Bishopwearmouth I was struck by how passionate everyone was about their work and also about being part of a co-op. It is a great example of the positive effect of giving workers of all abilities an equal say.”

[pictured at the Sunderland Echo Portfolio 2018 business awards on 1 November 2018, (from left) Shaun Donnelly, Nicola McDonald and David Hider from Bishopwearmouth Co-operative and Paul McEldon, chief executive of North East Business and Innovation Centre.]