‘If I had put too much thought into this, it wouldn't have happened’
Irish Lives: Twist soup kitchens are now in seven Irish towns
Olliver Williams: “Like everyone else, I’ve experienced hard times. And you don’t have to look too hard to see that the most vulnerable in our society are being hit the hardest by the economic crisis.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
On Monday, the seventh Twist Soup Kitchen will open in Ennis, Co Clare. The first opened on the docks in Galway 14 months ago – the idea of Oliver Williams (47), a Galway man who lives in Loughrea.
Williams turns up more than half an hour late for our interview, offering apologies. Even before he sits down, the reason for his lateness becomes obvious: his phone is beeping and ringing non-stop. It’s Williams’ own personal number that is listed as the contact for Twist Soup Kitchens, and already that morning, there have been several calls from members of the public, some seeking help and others offering it, by way of food donations.
“When I opened the first soup kitchen, it was thought up in a week, and opened in a week. If I had put too much thought into it, it would never have happened,” he says. That first kitchen has since closed, and a new one will open in the city’s Wood Quay in three weeks, after Williams secured a five-year lease in the premises of a former takeaway.
There are currently five other Twist centres in operation – in Athlone, Roscommon, Sligo, Tuam, and Loughrea. “In the existing premises, we’re averaging about 2,500 customers a week, accessing food.”
Their model varies, according to the type of premises they can find. Roscommon has a restaurant and charity shop; Sligo has both, but in different locations; Tuam is a charity shop that hands out food parcels on request. Galway will operate on a food take-away basis. Drogheda will open in September.
Williams left school at 15, and headed for London, seeking work as a panel beater. “There was no plan at all,” he admits. “I had no family there, and no savings.” About two months after arriving, he spent three nights in the Centrepoint Shelter, an experience that has stayed with him. “I was only there three days, but for some people, three days could become three years.”
After 10 years he returned to Galway and opened a garage. He also got a pilot’s licence. During the boom, he flew developers and auctioneers around the country to inspect sites and properties, for €600 an hour. “When the property boom collapsed, my helicopter business collapsed too.” The helicopter was sold off to Russia.
“Like everyone else, I’ve experienced hard times,” Williams says. “And you don’t have to look too hard to see that the most vulnerable in our society are being hit the hardest by the economic crisis.”
He didn’t consult with anyone from the charity sector prior to setting up the first ad-hoc kitchen on Galway’s docks. “There’s no great design in business to what I do,” he says simply. “But none of it would happen without volunteers, and the three or so key volunteers at each kitchen. Each centre has about 10 volunteers.” What happens when those people move on? “So far, the key people have stayed. And there is no shortage of people offering to volunteer.”
Williams reports that those using the Twist kitchens are mainly “the new poor. Self-employed people, people with mortgages, who are sending children hungry to school. Debt is the major problem for everyone, even if you’re a civil servant. And although they are licensed, the constant use of money-lenders is another one – they target vulnerable people.”
The centres are called Twist Soup Kitchens, something he now regrets. Williams admits that “if I had my time over again, I wouldn’t have called it a soup kitchen, because of the association with the Famine and stigma, but it is what it is now”. He hopes the name does not put anyone off seeking help.
“The pride has to be left on the bedside locker at some point. The ethos of our soup kitchens is that you can walk in and be provided with a meal, 10am to 4pm.”
As the Galway centre is take-away only, due to the existing regulations at the premises, customers will be greeted and offered a hot drink, and “a few meals – lamb stew, beef stew, chicken casserole, something to that effect”.
The kitchens have to obey the “same health and safety standards as anywhere else that serves food”. The kitchens are run on cash donations, fundraising via selling pins and tokens, proceeds from the Twist charity shops, and from donations of food from a number of sources around the country.
Recently, they were given a refridgerated truck worth €30,000; one supplier donates bread to all the centres; another provides fruit and vegetables; yet another donates ham. The previous day, a farmer rang to offer a lamb to be butchered. One of today’s many calls was an offer of 200 partridges and 100 chickens.
“The response we have got from the public to date means that every large town in Ireland at the moment needs a soup kitchen,” Williams says.
“I’m doing the same thing as Brother Kevin Crowley does in Dublin at the Capuchin Day Centre, but on a different scale and in a different way. The day we open a new kitchen in a town is the day we know whether it’s needed or not. So far, it’s needed. I’d love to open one and nobody to come into it.”
Twist Soup Kitchens are currently in the process of being registered as a charity so that they will be tax exempt. They are also in discussions with the Big Issue magazine with a view to amalgamation of resources in some way. “We need help, and they need help, and we can help each other.”
The next council elections are in 2014, and Williams says he is “considering running as an independent”. He hasn’t made his mind up yet, but it’s a strong possibility.
At the end of the interview, he switches his phone on again. It immediately starts beeping. In an hour, there have been 14 missed calls, all of them soup-kitchen related. “That’s fairly quiet,” he says. “Yesterday afternoon there were 67 calls.”