A fine-dining vegan restaurant staffed by prisoners and people with convictions could soon open its doors in Perth.
Ambitious plans have emerged to convert Perth Prison’s old social club into a commercial cafe and bistro, to support inmates and people with convictions and give them a second chance in life.
The project, which is the first of its kind in Scotland, is led by local social business Starting Step with non-financial backing from the Scottish Prison Service.
The Yew Tree – named after a historic tree in the grounds of HMP Castle Huntly – will be open to the public as a cafe initially, with further plans to offer a “fine dining” restaurant experience in the evenings.
As well as inmates, and ex-cons it will offer help to people with drug and alcohol-related mental health issues, as well as providing jobs from people outwith the criminal justice system.
In a statement tabled with council planners, Starting Step state: “Trainees will be able to develop their skills and reap the benefits of a real work environment.
“They will be able to interact with members of the public, where there will be no attached stigmas of their past mistakes. This will bring an added positive outcome of breaking down barriers between community and clients.”
Chief executive Dodie Piddock said: “I’ve worked with charities and the third sector for some time and I had always wondered why Scotland has such an appalling number of people in prison. We’re one of the worst in Europe, per capita.
“I did a lot of work on focus groups and I found that the vast majority of people in prison need a second chance. I came away from this thinking, how do we do this?”
Ms Piddock spoke to the prison service about her plan for the abandoned social club. “They probably thought I was bonkers,” she said. “That’s the usual response I get.”
Starting Step want to offer customers a completely plant-based menu, using locally-grown produce. “There are many reasons for this,” said Ms Piddock. “There is a growing need for chefs that are able to produce high quality vegan food.”
She said: “What is important about this project is the end result. I don’t want this to be just another training programme, I want to do something more than give them hope.
“I knew there were two areas where we could just about guarantee them jobs – horticulture and hospitality.”
The grade A-listed building is still owned by the prison service, which is closely monitoring Starting Step’s project.
A planning application to transform the building – with a training kitchen, workshop, offices and meeting rooms – has been submitted to Perth and Kinross Council.
Ms Piddock said: “It will be beautiful. And hopefully it will be something Perth can be proud of.
“Ultimately, I really want to eradicate the stigma of people who have touched base with the criminal justice system.
“People will come because they might be nosy, and we have to keep them coming back because of the food.”