Inside South London's Pay-What-You-Can Cafe

Last Updated 04 April 2024

Inside South London's Pay-What-You-Can Cafe
a woman dishing up pasta bake while doing a peace sign
Yaba dishing up mountains of pasta bake — menus at SNCK change daily. Image: Londonist

Minutes from Norwood Junction station, there's a wonderful community cafe serving pay-what-you-can meals.

South Norwood Community Kitchen (SNCK) is bustling: customers and volunteers shuttling in and out; the aroma of three different pasta bakes wafting from the kitchen; someone playing with a dog outside on the lawn. It sounds corny, but within a few moments of being here, you really do get a sense of community — especially given the uber-friendly cohort of volunteers, numbering over 100.

SNCK's operation has been going since 2016, but it only moved to its current site in the Socco Cheta Community Hub on Portland Road in the summer of 2022. For anyone living in the area looking for affordable (or even free) food served up in a caring environment with no strings attached, this place is a goldmine.

A woman eating pasta bake
Volunteer Tina enjoying a meal. Image: Londonist
A young man giving the thumbs up
Volunteer Larry, who we're told is a particularly good barista. Image: Londonist

A community caff runs at SNCK Tuesday to Friday each week (10am-3pm), serving up bargainous plates of food to anyone who wants it. It's sourced from food redistributors like City Harvest, and there are plans to collaborate with local farms in the future, too. The guide price for dishes at SNCK is a thrifty £6 — but it's strictly pay-what-you-can, so anyone can enjoy it. Dishes change daily, depending on available ingredients. The menu might have anything from mushroom and kale-stuffed sweet potatoes, to peri-peri chicken wings, to jollof rice and coleslaw. The army of pragmatic volunteer cooks — like Tina and Yaba, who we meet on our visit — are ready and raring to adapt to whatever food shows up.

You don't have to come for lunch. SNCK does coffees throughout the day (guide price £2, but again, it's pay-what-you-can) . Sweet treats sometimes come courtesy of The Snapery Bakery, purveyors of some of London's bougiest pastries. Somewhere like Gail's, these will set you back a fair few quid, but at SNCK you get them for a steal.

A bustling community kitchen
The cafe serves 300 meals a week. Image: Londonist
A woman smiling in front of a blackboard
"It's about providing people with good food and using a meal as a way to bring people together" - Emma Gardiner. Image: Londonist

"It's about providing people with good food and using a meal as a way to bring people together, build solidarity, build power and change things," project lead Emma Gardiner tells me.

Indeed, SNCK is hard at work trying to make positive change for the community — with visitors encouraged to chip in with their spare time if they can. Every Saturday at SNCK sees a community day, with free two-course meals served to about 50 people on long tables, as well as a food bank, plus activities, arts and crafts — a real festival vibe.

On Mondays, young people learn cooking skills, while dishing up grub to other young people, at SNCK's Youth Caff.

A smiling woman on a mobility scooter
Sarah is a regular at the cafe, and also hosts a reggae radio show from the same building. Image: Londonist
A blackboard welcoming people to the kitchen
There's always something going on. Image: Londonist

The SNCK shares the Socco Cheta Community Hub with Croydon Domino’s Club and the Association of Jamaicans in Great Britain. There's always something going on: when we visit, there are talks, English lessons for refugees, and cafe regular Sarah is preparing to present her reggae radio show.

If you want to spend an afternoon enjoying Socco Cheta Community Hub's garden, read a book, or play one of their board games — even if you spend absolutely nothing — that's fine, says Gardiner. The space is what's lacking from many communities: a home from home, with no requirement to spend money, hand over vouchers, prove your income, or provide other forms of documentation, as has become the norm at places elsewhere.

Serving around 300 meals per week, SNCK is always looking for new recruits. Donation of money and certain items are also very welcome.

South Norwood Community Kitchen