IT is not much to look at when you first step inside – a small room where the walls are largely blank, the furniture is miss-matched and the carpet is virtually thread-bare.
But here in this semi-converted Sheffield shopping unit – or rather in the small kitchenette at the back – something of a revolution is being cooked up. Quite literally.
For it is here that a group of social researchers and charity workers have launched a project unlike anything ever attempted in the UK before. They are aiming to do nothing less than boost social cohesion, promote community ties, reduce crime and fight poverty in the Sharrow area of the city; and they are aiming to do it through nothing more than encouraging people to come into their London Road base and eat free apple pie.
“What we are doing is really unknown territory so it is very much an experiment,” says Jo Watts, the St Mary’s Conference Centre and Church learning and development manager, who is running what has been called The Sharrow Pie Experiment. “We have no clear path of how it will work, we are learning as we go on – but we’re sure some good will come from what we are attempting.”
What they are attempting, then, is a simple and inexpensive idea which could have far-reaching consequences for both Sheffield and the country as a whole.
Pay attention. It goes like this.
Locals are encouraged to come to this small shop/cafe/grandma’s front room for free pie and tea. Once there, they are invited to sit down with their slice and chat to the person next to them. Through talking, networks are established, ideas are generated, projects are born and people are inspired to improve the area in which they live. Through that empowerment and relationship-building, social cohesion is increased, vibrancy created and local knowledge boosted, thus creating the perfect conditions for happiness, health and safety.
It’s not. Something similar is already working in the US, where a team of young college design graduates set up a PieLab in the impoverished town of Greensboro, Alabama. There, two years after it first opened, the scheme has received a stream of praise from local folk and government officials, and been credited with inspiring an economic upturn in the town.
“That’s where we sort of got the inspiration from,” says Jo. “Pie plus space equals conversation, and from conversation relationships are born, which can only lead to good things.”
The Sharrow idea was originally sparked after a visit last October from the widely-respected researcher Tessy Britton who advocates using food as a way of improving social inclusion.
She pointed the team at St Mary’s Conference Centre and Church, a charity based in Bramall Lane and funding the project, in the direction of the American project, and they thought it was worth a shot.
“It seemed such a good simple idea and we thought we can make that work here,” says Jo. “What we’re doing really is simply creating the conditions for local people to meet each other and form networks, which can then help them to bring about real change in the area.
“And it had to be pie, didn’t it? Everyone loves pie. It’s got that warm, welcoming feeling to it. It can remind you of your grandma’s house or just being somewhere you love, which was what we wanted to create.
“Often a lot of community contact is through organised formal meetings or public consultations and, although they have their place, they can perhaps be a little restrictive, they can make people feel less comfy. This is more human somehow. Staff here can lead conversations if it’s wanted, but they don’t have to. The whole point is locals come in and start discussions with each other.”
It is not the first time St Mary’s has led a food-based experiment.
In 2006, it brought a group of Asian women together and encouraged them to make friends by combining their private recipes to make the perfect samosas and bhajis.
The product they came up with is today still used by the charity’s catering arm, and many of the women have been employed in the department.
“That was a success and we hope we can get positive results from The Sharrow Pie Experiment too,” says Jo. “We’ve only rented the shop for six months – we’ve carpeted, decorated and, of course, installed the kitchen – and then in September when our rent contract is up, we will see where we go from there.
“It is beginning as a pop-up project but if it is a success, perhaps we will consider keeping it going a little longer. What’s most important, though, is that even if the shop shuts, the friendships created by it will be its lasting legacy.”
Certainly those friendships are already forming.
There have been more than 70 people through the door since the opening at the start of the month and already there are one or two regulars.
Staff, meanwhile – there are four of them, all funded through St Mary’s existing budgets – will make house-to-house calls over the next few weeks encouraging more people to go along for a slice.
“It’s a surprise how quickly it’s taken off but that can only be a good thing,” says Jo. “We chose to do this in Sharrow because we felt it was an area where there is a spread of different people but also an area where people would get involved – but, again, if it’s a success, it’s certainly something we would consider in other areas of Sheffield.
“We looked briefly at setting up in the city centre but we thought, although we might get more people in, they would be from a wide area and that would perhaps lose that community feel.”
A questionnaire is given to everyone who goes but it is optional and anonymous. The results are used to establish trends and patterns which could lead to the project being improved as it goes along.
“The one thing people have repeatedly said is they like our pie,” says Jo. “Which is important.
“It’s unknown territory but we’re really very hopeful.”
There will be plenty of people toasting that.
With a brew and a slice of pie.
The Alabama example
IT all started with a pie day.
Young designers at Project M, an idealistic American design-for-good collective, threw public parties across the country where they gave away pie for no other reason than to make people feel good and get them talking.
The concept was so successful, the team decided to create PieLab – a store where the dessert would be sold super cheap so residents could come along, eat, share ideas and start projects.
And so in 2009 they set up shop in the impoverished town of Greensboro, Alabama, a tiny county seat in America’s Black Belt, a former cotton-producing region where the soil is dark and rich, and one-third of children live in poverty.
Originally designed as a pop-up unit using second hand equipment and furniture, that store-come-cafe-come-performance space is still going strong today.
Its arrival has coincided with a small period of economic growth in the town, and, while there has been the odd controversy - such as when conservative residents reacted with anger to a poster which read ‘Eat Pie, F*** Cake’ - the store is credited with a growing aspiration among the young in the area.
Its impact has been praised by government officials.
What’s on at the experiment
AS well as opening each weekday (9.30am - 2.30pm) on an informal basis, The Sharrow Pie Experiment will host a number of events over the next five months.
Photography exhibition (tomorrow, 6 - 8pm)
Welcome and introduction party (Friday, 6.30 - 9.30pm)
Pop-up cinema (May 25, 7pm).
Up My Street Workshop, informal but structured discussions on the experiment, (May 26 and June 11, 11am - 2pm).
The big lunch, a community gathering over lunch, (June 5, time to be confirmed).