The community café that feels more like Cheers than a church

    Manna Cafe
    (L to R): Janet Lindsay, Patricia Fuller, Alex Whittle, Ioseu Vidal, Ignacio Hormaechea and Valentin Onitu

    Manna Café, which offers sandwiches, cakes and coffee on the High Street in Tunbridge Wells, is a business with a difference – it is not designed to make a profit.

    And any money they do make is sent directly to poverty relief projects in the Mathare Valley, Kenya, one of the biggest slums in the country.

    However, while he is a supporter of the charitable activity, the real drive for café volunteer Alex Whittle is much closer to home.

    “What really motivates us is looking after people. It’s more important to have a well-run, welcoming space than to make lots of money,” he tells the Times.

    “If we were motivated by money, we’d have half the staff, the cakes would be a pound extra and we’d be hassling people to spend more.

    “We are a business, but with a heart.”

    And it’s clear, from when you first walk in seeing staff and customers sharing banter over the counter, that this approach has developed a real sense of community.

    Manna Cafe 2
    Customers enjoy the atmosphere

    The café is physically attached to Christ Church, but exists as a separate limited company which pays rent to the church, and Alex insists: “We are not here to evangelise.

    “It was very church-based about two years ago, whereas working here today, for example, no one is from the church. We are appealing to a much wider audience now.

    “We have such a range of characters here. It’s more like Cheers than a church club.”

    It is this cultivation of an upbeat, welcoming atmosphere that attracts regular visitors, especially mothers with young children.

    The ‘Manna Mums’

    “The idea all started with my wife,” Alex reveals. “She felt there was nowhere in town she could go with our children without feeling pressured to leave as soon as she finished her drink.

    “We wanted to provide that space so we have pretty much dedicated a whole corner for mothers with young children. There is no pressure for them to buy anything.”

    The next step

    Now the team at Manna, made up of two paid staff and 20 volunteers, want to start operating outside the café, with plans to introduce a takeaway and delivery service.

    However, that might be a while off as funds for various bits of equipment will take some time to raise. As Alex admits: “Some costs are ridiculous! Our small chiller that just displays sandwiches cost £5,000. Can you believe it? Luckily we have lots of suppliers that give us a really fair deal when they know we’re non-profit.”

    While Alex runs his own successful photography company next door to the café, he always finds himself popping in, explaining: “It’s just such a unique space in town. It’s like an Italian piazza – there’s no one here at the beginning, then the kids start running about, someone might get out a guitar… Sometimes it’s mad, sometimes it’s formal, but life is always brought here by our customers.”

    Manna is open Monday to Friday, 7.30am to 5pm, and Saturday, 9am to 5pm