Retro Café: A Different Café

Sunday 10 June 2012, by Kelvin Ong, Ruta Ambrasaite, Sara Pardo, Vasyl Davydko

8 inspired

A. How did you find this company? What are the main facts about its activities?

When one visits the RETRO Café in Copenhagen, the experience is the one of a warm, close and comfortable environment. Once you find out that the vast majority of its friendly and motivated staff is formed by volunteers and that the surplus is sent to humanitarian development projects in Third World countries, the experience becomes even more amazing. This a personal experience of one of our group members during a week-end trip to the Danish capital.

RETRO Café is a volunteer association that raises funds for development projects in Third World countries, in particular, African countries and India. Its goal is to create and sustain a meaningful alternative to regular volunteer work for people who dream about a better world and want to contribute to making the difference.

The name “Retro”, meaning “reverse” in Latin, refers to the decoration of the café and also to the idea of pensiveness. What is more, the name also makes reference to the fact that the purpose of the café is to return to the essential human values, such trust, solidarity and love to the neighbor.

Although, RETRO Café was founded by group of people who knew each other from a state church and its values are based on a Christian idea of human co-existence, the organization itself is not religious. This also means that they do not rule out either volunteers or projects based on certain opinions or ideas. At the same time, it also adopts a neutral political position.

Retro Café is different, not only because of its design or location. As most workers are volunteers, the service to customers is more amicable. Furthermore, it also differentiates itself by being a platform of art, culture and debate. Upcoming musicians and artists are invited to the RETRO Café´s events which are generally free of charge. People can go to Retro Café and play with their band, read poems or just to arrange debates.

B. What are the Ethical challenges this company is addressing?

The main ethical problem the organization is trying to address is poverty. Although RETRO Café is not powerful enough to eradicate the poverty in the entire world, it makes the effort towards this objective. The profits earned go to financing humanitarian projects in less developed countries.

For instance, the React Project in Masanga, Sierra Leone, which improves locals’ education and ensures their access to knowledge while operating a library with access to computers, Internet and computer training. The Kono project, also in Sierra Leone, targets marginalized women and gives them training as a tailor or hairdresser so that they can obtain a job, gain income and empower themselves and its role in the family. Finally, the expansion and maintenance of a girl orphanage in Kherwara, India, which currently can only address 1% of its applications. Most of the projects are developed in partnership with NGOs.

Concerning its employees, the opportunity cost generated when working can deviate towards low or irregular commitment. Furthermore, the fact of staff not observing the results of their volunteer job might create distrust. The company solves the first issue by demanding a minimum involvement of 3 hours per week, a flat and dynamic structure, a variety of social opportunities and community to motivate and sustain the employees involvement and training and coaching to team leaders and the second, by giving disclosure information to employees on the benefits and destination of projects.

Another ethical challenge the firm is facing is the perception as a religious organizations due to its values centered on the Christian idea of neighborly love. Furthermore, they also have to deal with the fact of being perceived of having some political orientation due to the fact of hosting arrangements that deal with political issues.

C. What makes this company really inspiring to you and why would you trust it?

The society and the capitalist economic system in which we are living today is mainly focused on maximization of individual´s own utility and getting the highest profit possible. That is why the return to the essential human values, such trust, solidarity and love to the neighbor are so important. A better world is possible and RETRO Café´s purpose is to make people think about it and to make a possible contribution.

The second main reason for considering RETRO Café as ethical and trusting it is because of their values. Their values are, in opposition to the egoistic values of our society: love to the neighbor, tolerance and respect by encouraging dialogue and consideration of the uniqueness in each individual. The dialogue promoted is not the one about each other day-to-day problems and challenges, but the dialogue about general purposes and the society in general and the role of each individual in it. All these principles have the goal of developing in individuals the responsibility to the fellow human being, the community and the environment, while encouraging the social cohesion, due to its neutral position. All these values are promoted not only by their employees, but also by collaborators all around the world and customers.

Another reason to trust Retro Café is because it is really caring. Existence of RETRO Café tries not to harm any individual, while trying to help the ones that are the most needed. Volunteers are offered a variety of social opportunities and community to motivate and sustain their involvement. The organization is made up of teams, and team leaders are offered training and coaching to maintain a high level of volunteer leadership. Some workers (particularly, the ones working in administration) spend all their time to have their job done. But one should not forget that they also need to pay their bills, feed their families, etc. That is why, those people are hired as RETRO Café workers and are paid a salary for their job. Nevertheless, these individuals are less than 5% of the staff and volunteers are a vast majority.

On the other hand, taking into account the economic theory on human resource management, one might think that, due to lack of monetary incentives, the service provided by the personnel is not very good and the customers received a worse than average treatment. Nevertheless, the practice is quite opposite. Bartenders, despite being volunteers, are really kind and all customers receive an excellent human treatment. At the same time, no admission fee is required to attend most of the events organized by RETRO Café.

Another purpose of RETRO Café is to encourage creative and artistic people. One has many opportunities to explore and release his or her creativity through art, participating in the debates or meditation sessions. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, live music is played. The purpose of all this, it is to promote upcoming artists. For instance, Thursday’s performances are reserved to hand-picked artists.

Finally, the whole profit goes to humanitarian development projects. Currently, RETRO Café supports a rehabilitation center in New Delhi and two projects in Sierra Leone. There are no intermediaries between RETRO Café and the projects, so one can be sure that 100% of the money is used to its purpose. What is more, RETRO Café does not simply makes monetary contributions to those projects, but, in case of the two projects in Sierra Leone, they were launched by RETRO Café itself.

D.What are the possible challenges facing the company in the future and how do you think this company may improve?

We think that Retro Café has been doing a great job. Its model, which has been explained in the first part, has allowed it to remain profitable, while its humanitarian purpose makes this profit be used for development projects in the Third World countries. In our opinion, it has successfully faced all ethical challenges that had arisen since its foundation, but in the future it will probably be challenged by some new.

One possible ethical challenge is the environmental issue. RETRO Café fits in the requirements of the city of Copenhagen and recycles bottles, card board, paper and collects metal from candles and bottle to be recycled. Some products are organic and fair trade, but some others are conventional. Although it is a cafeteria whose profits are used for humanitarian goals, care for the whole community is also among its values. And environment affects everybody. That is why, being also a pioneer in recycling and going further than governmental standards might be an important improvement. On the other hand, the use of fair trade products could be another indirect contribution to alleviating the poverty in the world.

Expansion might be another challenge in the future. Since the model has worked in Copenhagen, it would probably be successful in other cities. Creating a network of cafeterias could be a great idea since it would contribute to share of its values, while being able to earn higher profits (through volume, not margins) in order to be able to make a stronger impact.

Consumer and employee trust might be another challenge. In order to deal with it, more information on revenues, costs of RETRO Café should be displayed on its website. They should also keep track of the achievement of each project and post them on the website so both consumer and employee can be proud of its contribution.

Finally, another ethical issue that might arise is that it might affect the whole business model of restaurants. If all customers went to businesses like RETRO Cafés, some restaurants, most of which are familiar businesses, would have to reduce their margins or even close down. One would not care much about a decrease in profits of a large cafeteria network like Starbucks, but seeing a familiar business having to close down would not be very nice and might even seem unfair. That is why, it is important for RETRO Café to try to share its values with the rest of the community, but trying to make everybody better off.


RETRO Café website

RETRO Café Facebook page

Acknowledgements to Kasper Scotte, Cafe Manager for some additional information provided

Architects Without Borders website: projects

American graduate student in Copenhague personal blog

Anglican Church Planting Activities website

Start a new discussion

3 Discussions / 3 Messages

  • RETRO Café 5 October 2012 at 10:30 , by Stefanie Brand

    I am really inspired by the company and your study here, because I think this kind of project addresses values that have been forgotten in today`s society: spend some of your time to do something selfless.

    With locating the Retro Café in the city center of Copenhagen and organizing special events like concerts and exhibitions they reach a lot of people, especially young adults and make them think about what they can contribute to the society. Moreover people can find others in the café with which they can exchange their experience and ideas.
    And even if the monetary contributions to the projects in Sierra Leone or India are small, it shows that every one of us can do something and help to make the world a better place. So I hope these kinds of places motivate people to contribute to the society, even if they can just do a little bit.

    Although I think it is hard for such a small company based on voluntary workers to assure that the money reaches the right people, I hope that this concept finds its way to other cities.

  • RETRO Café 5 October 2012 at 11:15 , by Boris Chevreau

    Finally a project that combines business with pleasure!
    I think this project is somehow a mix of all a social businessman would dream of., and that’s what makes it so inspiring. First the volunteer workers, who are deeply impacted and invested in the results and benefits that the café produces on society. Second a friendly and welcoming ambient that incites the customers to care about their spending and to make a gesture for good causes. And finally profits most entirely redistributed to specific poverty-reducing projects well catered and studied carefully. And the company is still profitable! It should be an example for a lot of business projects.
    Now I think as for all social companies, the main stake is to manage expenditure and Public relations. As it is pointed out in the project, franchising might be an excellent way to provide for a sane and healthy reproduction of the business model without altering the very nature of the project and at the same time staying cost-effective. Public relations is another point, as for every “good did” you need to talk about it, and make people talk about it: for a social project to work, you need word of mouth and marketing strategies.

  • RETRO Café 27 February 2013 at 19:05 , by laura

    This kind of ideas are really inspirated. I love the altruist business idea. Currently everyone think in money and forget the life’s sense. Helping needed people makes us feel good and happy.

    Today there are many people who unfortunately don’t have work, but shouldn’t sit idly, must perform such activities to feel useful and well. When you do something you love you don’t need a monetary reward but enjoy the day to day, that’s what matters. I relish the idea of live music, meetings and discussions. I think it’s a very creative idea. I see a very feasible business because I think there are many people who would like to participate.

    I think it is a homely project and a very beautiful goal.

Location: Copenhagen (Denmark)

Sector: Accommodation and food service activities

Official website:

Key figures:

Accumulated donation (2007- 2011): 1.500.000 DKR (200.000 €)

2010: 2.400.000 DKR (300.000 EUR)
2011: 3.000.000 DKR (400.000 EUR)

2010: 400.000 DKR (50.000 EUR)
2011: 600.000 DKR (75.000 EUR)

Number of Employees: 60-80 volunteers and paid staff

Countries of humanitarian projects: Sierra Leone, India and others

Nbr. visits: 1872

Nbr. inspires: 8