COOK: Freezing Food to Thaw Prospects For Ex-Offenders and Previously Homeless People
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Since 1997, COOK has sold frozen meals with a difference. Its founding mission statement reads: “To cook using the same ingredients and techniques a good cook would use at home, so everything looks and tastes homemade.” In so doing, COOK also employs ex-offenders and previously homeless people. There are now over 90 COOK shops across the UK, plus a thriving delivery business and a concessions network. COOK became a B Corps in 2013.
How does COOK work?
COOK’s stated “driving purpose” is to nourish four types of human relationship:
- Between people and their work.
- With food and where it comes from.
- Between COOK, its customers and their communities.
- Between business and society.
These four aims are interconnected through a smorgasbord of initiatives through which COOK emphasises relationships over hierarchy and treats staff as rounded people instead of automatons. “We want to move beyond the 20th century idea of people as resources, to be used by the company in the pursuit of profit,” says Rosie Brown, the company’s Managing Director.
Source: COOK website
The flagship initiative here is COOK’s Ready And Working (RAW) Talent Programme, which supports people who have spent time in prison (except anybody on the sex register) or without housing into work. Each RAW Talent is allocated a buddy and given additional support to help adjust to working life. RAW Talents come primarily from two partners: HMP Standford Hill, the local prison; and Caring Hands, which supports people out of homelessness and addiction.
Other COOK initiatives designed to treat staff as rounded people and encourage rich relationships through work are:
- The COOK Dream Academy. Led by “Dream Manager” Alastair Hill, this gives staff and others the chance to have a series of one-to-one coaching sessions on pursuing a personal “dream”, or ambition. COOK argues it is important staff have a strong sense of why they work where they do.
- The Selfie. This is an optional self-reflective tool, relying on feedback from colleagues, that staff can use instead of appraisals.
- Interest-free loans for staff in financial difficulties.
- Care Cards. These 30% discount cards are distributed to staff, who can gift them to people they feel are in need in some capacity.
What impact is COOK having?
- COOK has employed over 50 RAW Talents since 2014, representing 2% of the current workforce.
- For colleagues directly following prison or homelessness, there are many benefits of regular employment, including a much lower chance of re-offending.
- 1000 Care Cards distributed to staff in 2018, resulting in a total £30,149 in discounts for people in need.
- £88,060 loaned to staff in the past five years, with zero defaults.
- COOK has repeatedly been featured in the Times 100 Best Companies to Work For list, coming 14th in 2019 – the highest-placed manufacturer. It is impossible to tie this to any specific initiative, but it is consistent with the insight (also recorded in our Timpson case study) that employing ex-offenders helps build brand loyalty and produces particularly loyal staff.
- An 87.5 2018 B Corp score (COOK’s third straight increased score).
- Impressive financial returns. In 2018, COOK experienced a 16% rise in sales, a 32% rise in profit and secured 81 new concession partners. Even if these are also impossible to tie to specific initiatives, it seems a safe assumption that, especially with COOK’s excellent and thorough branding and communications, COOK’s various social initiatives are at least partly responsible.
What can COOK teach us about effective relationship-centred design?
Creating an enabling environment helps to support the development and maintenance of meaningful relationships.
COOK has clearly put thought and energy into creating a cultural environment that encourages meaningful relationships. Its initiatives, values, branding and communications align to show COOK realises effective relationship-centred design must be holistic, transcending isolated tweaks. This consistent messaging suggests an organisation thoughtfully and thoroughly engaged with its stated relationship-driven approach, providing fertile ground for effective relationships to take root.
Openness, empathy – and sometimes forgiveness – are necessary conditions from which relationships can grow.
This can be particularly true with potentially contentious relationships – an unfortunate risk given potential resistance to employing ex-offenders. This is poignantly captured in this case by the story of Red, a RAW Talent recruit who, it transpired, had physically assaulted Craig, now a COOK colleague, years before. The two are now friends and effective colleagues.
Third parties are often vital in helping frame and initiate relationships.
COOK relies on HMP Standford Hill and Caring Hands to suggest candidates suitable to working at COOK. COOK’s strong relationship with its staff therefore relies on its relationship with other organisations and their expertise.
Training can provide a trellis on which mutual relationships grow, especially when the trainee faces barriers to training elsewhere.
In COOK’s context RAW Talents’ training helps ground a mutual employer-employee relationship built on trust. RAW Talents develop skills, secure employment and feel a renewed sense of purpose – all of which may be difficult to find elsewhere. COOK, in return, benefits from a valuable team member and contributes to its high B Corp score and staff-satisfaction rating. Training offers the framework for this exchange to take place.
Relationships often work best when they align with participants’ existing values.
We’ve written this time and time again across our case studies, but it is interesting and important to observe how relationship-centred design is particularly effective when relationships are designed in alignment with participants’ existing values. In this case, COOK values the idea that business should be about more than profit, and RAW Talents broadly value the sense of freedom and redemption, among other benefits, that regular employment helps provide.
What’s next for COOK?
COOK has a transparent ‘2020 To-Do List’ on its website, outlining the company’s aims by 2020 in a bid to become a “more responsible and sustainable business.
Want to learn more?
- COOK’s website has a wealth of information on its initiatives and values. Its Nourishing Relationships page is the best jumping-off point.
- The website also features its impact reports, including its 2018 report.
Has this case study inspired any comments, ideas or critiques?
Please do get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if so. An essential part of the Relationships Project is learning from others engaged in thinking about relationship-centred design. We don’t have all the answers, so hope some people reading will contribute suggestions.