The Starbeck cafe that's going above and beyond to tackle our district's loneliness crisis

Karen's Bistro owner Colette Howarth with staff and customers. The cafe came second in this year's Harrogate cafe of the year competition.
Karen's Bistro owner Colette Howarth with staff and customers. The cafe came second in this year's Harrogate cafe of the year competition.

A Starbeck cafe is going above and beyond to tackle our district's hidden epidemic of loneliness, by making social interaction the bread and butter of everything it does.

Introducing shared tables, simply saying hello, and having staff sitting down to get to know customers by name is producing important and meaningful results at Karen's Bistro on Starbeck High Street - where, if someone comes in on their own and would like company, they are encouraged to sit with others.

It's become such an embedded culture at this cafe, that regulars are now taking it upon themselves to cheerfully say hello and invite newcomers to join them. One recent customer said their visit was the first time they haven't dined alone in more than 10 years.

On occasions when elderly customers have telephoned the cafe to say that they are unable to make it in in person due to mobility issues, staff have been known to walk with them and provide assistance.

The owner of Karen's Bistro, Colette Howarth, who came into daily contact with people who were feeling lonely or isolated during her more than 10 years of working in local pharmacies, said it's all about getting back to the roots of what a community cafe should be.

She said: "I do think that loneliness is a major crisis in this country - not just older people, but younger people, single parents, or any one of us. We have people coming into our cafe speaking to us, who say it's the first conversation they've had all day, or all week.

"I think in the days of social media, people are hiding behind their phones more and there isn't that need for conversation or face-to-face interaction anymore, or that need to engage. When actually, people do need it - if not, it can leave people feeling very isolated.

"Loneliness and isolation are detrimental to people's physical and mental health. It's all about the quality of time - just giving a bit of your time can make a huge difference. Just stopping what you are doing and paying attention to people, and listening.

"A cup of tea really brings people together - sitting down and even just talking about the weather breaks down social barriers."

All staff at Karen's Bistro live within a couple of streets of where they work, and one of the most positive things they've witnessed is the intergenerational aspect of the cafe, and how friendships are formed over a cuppa.

Colette said: "We've had young people chatting to older customers who have then formed friendships after meeting at the cafe, and you sometimes see them out shopping at Morrisons together.

"I think the impact of what we are doing is small but powerful."

Karen's Bistro also runs quiet sessions to help customers who have autism or other sensory disabilities feel more comfortable.

Colette said: "Everyone is welcome at our cafe, and we love getting to know our customers."