In conversation with Frits Koppelaar, co-founder of Grenzeloos

In conversation with Frits Koppelaar, co-founder of Grenzeloos

By Francesca Celenta

Grenzeloos is a restaurant and café situated in the heart of Maastricht. They offer an apprenticeship trajectory for refugees to allow them to integrate both socially and economically in Maastricht life. The Voice Project talked to Frits, the co-founder of this social enterprise to better understand how their business aims to promote cultural diversity and an alternative method of integration.

How did you come up with the idea of setting up Grenzeloos?

I was part of Refugee Project Maastricht in the period that it started, that was a period when there was a large inflow of refugees coming due to the conflict in Syria. Through RPM, I got to meet a lot of people from Syria and I started realising that a lot of systems in place are not working well. Around that time, I also moved to a different neighbourhood and I was around groups of people who migrated earlier, for example the Moroccan and Turkish communities. It’s hard to integrate in a new society and the methods in place are often not working.

Then, a friend of mine started a living community in a building that also had place for a restaurant, and he came up with the idea of doing something with refugees. So, we teamed up and we created Grenzeloos. That’s how it started.


In your opinion, what are some of the barriers refugees face when they try to integrate?

There are a lot of things that are hard for people who flee to the Netherlands that lead to them not integrating well. When I talk about integration, I mean finding a job that they get income from and building a network outside of their own language group. Also, a general ability to speak the language well and be part of society. We tried to create a place, or a system, where people can come in and they can improve in all those aspects. So, a ‘one package deal’ that can help people improve in six to eight months and then move on to a different place.

Who are the people working at Grenzeloos?

 Our team is composed of employees and trainees. The employees are Dutch speaking people that are long-term committed to our team and then trainees are refugees and they come in for six to eight months and they learn things and then go on their way again.


How do you come in contact with refugees who want to work at Grenzeloos?

We work together with the municipality, people who are doing ‘inburgering’ (civic integration process) are normally in something they call ‘participatie wet’ so that’s the law that gives you a subsidy. They are in contact with the municipality and that’s how they take part in our trajectory.

Do you also work with people living in the AZC?

I would say 90% of the people we work with already have their status. But right now, we are also experimenting with two people who are still at the AZC. It’s an experiment because we’re not really sure how their process will go. We’re trying to find out if that’s a good way to do it.

Do you think it’s important to also open the trajectory to the people in the AZC?

It’s a balance. We have limited space and there are many people who already have their status and need to find the right trajectory. The Dutch ‘inburgering’ is mostly theoretical language classes and for some people that’s not the right solution. It could be that they do not have a lot of education or they just don’t learn well with theory. For us, it’s important to find a solution that makes the most impact. This is why we’re experimenting with a few people who are in the AZC but of course if they don’t end up staying in the Netherlands the work has less impact. Another problem is that people in the AZC don’t have a right to a government subsidy so it’s harder to fund the trajectories.

Can you explain how the trajectory at Grenzeloos works?

It’s a combination of working and learning. There is group training where the focus is on practicing the language but also building a community and getting to trust each other. Then, we have individual language trainings. In addition, there are skills trainings which are related to practical skills you need in the restaurant and skills that improve your professional ability.

Trainees are also working eight to sixteen hours, depending on their circumstances, in the restaurant. At our restaurant, we serve coffee, drinks and food and everyone specialises in one direction.

Once the trajectory is over, what do the trainees move on to do?

The best fit is if they continue working in the same sector, but many people also go in different directions. I think working in a restaurant is the best fit, you learn a lot of things that are useful for other jobs in the hospitality sector. In general, hospitality is a great learning space for refugees because the language is used a lot and they’re constantly interacting with people, that’s the ideal situation.

In total, twenty-eight people started with us and for six people it wasn’t a good fit. In the first month and a half we have a trial period for people to understand if the trajectory is what they want to do and for us to see if they have the right motivation. We have fourteen people who successfully finished the trajectory and eight people who are still in it. From the fourteen that finished, eight went on to work, three to study, two to internships and one is still looking for a job. Our trajectory has improved a lot since the beginning so right now it’s even more fitting to go into the hospitality sector.

How do you determine if a trainee is a got fit for the restaurant? Is it mostly based on motivation?

Yes, I would say that’s the most important factor. At the beginning, there was a mismatch in our team. For example, an older man came in as a trainee while the rest of the team was mostly young women so there was a cultural mismatch. But right now, it’s more balanced and it works better.

As I said, we work together with the municipality, and the people who have their status have to do volunteering or something of the sort. So, sometimes we have a trainee who isn’t motivated to work in the hospitality sector. But I would say that mostly happened in the first few years, right now we have a really motivated group, so we improved in that.

What were the main challenges that you encountered? What did you change or learn throughout the years?

Many things. We didn’t have experience in the hospitality sector beforehand so that was quite a challenge. We had some great advisers, we learnt a lot in the first few years, how to run a hospitality business and we’re still improving in that.

One of the main challenges was that at the beginning we combined everything. We did all the learning on site and that didn’t work. When you have a group of guests coming in, they need all your attention and then you cannot really focus on teaching people. When we had a busy day, the learning part became difficult.

The idea behind the business is that we can grow to a model where we can fund these trajectories ourselves, so the income from the business serves as the money that goes into the training. In order to do that, you need to achieve efficiencies where the learning part helps the business part. But at the beginning the learning part and the business part were a mismatch for each other because when it’s busy you cannot really teach someone something and the trainees were just in the restaurant, sometimes without any real responsibility. Then, we decided to invest more in the beginning and to split the teaching from the work, and that worked well. Now the trainees have more responsibility.

One of the other main problems is just working together with not a lot of language to do that, so that’s still difficult with every new person coming in but we invent ways to communicate.

Do you think working with refugees, or generally people from different cultures, is also beneficial for your Dutch employees and for your customers?

Every culture has a lot of beautiful things to bring in. For example, a lot of the people we work with are from cultures that are a lot more group oriented, and I think Dutch society is very individualistic sometimes and that’s what I learnt a lot from. Of course, the food is also very good, that’s one beautiful aspect. We’re trying to bring that in more, in the coming months, we had a menu that is more standard Dutch and we’re trying to change to something more international, which incorporates the influences of the cultures of the trainees. So, I think it’s really beneficial. It’s also quite challenging, which means you learn a lot about teamwork.


How do you think your experience with RPM set you on the road to creating this business or what kind of tools or things did you learn at RPM that you found useful in this new career?

RPM is where I met this group of people. I would say it played a large role in it. It’s where I began to understand more what the difficulties are for this group of people. It’s also where I developed a lot of friendships with people with a refugee background. In general, it’s where I better understood what issues people are facing.

*From the 8th of March, Grenzeloos is starting a low-priced (below 10euros) meal for delivery and take-away, the menu changes weekly and it’s based on the culinary cultures of the trainees. If you’re curious keep an eye out for their social pages and check out the menu here /