I Love Coffee, Cape-based social enterprise that trains and employs deaf baristas as frontline staff, has embarked on a bold expansion to see as many as five new outlets opening in the next twelve months.
After their successful move to the Publicis Building in Harrington Street earlier this year, where the company now functions as the in-house catering and coffee provider for the ten agencies based there, the I Love Coffee team have big plans for the future.
“We are busy setting up a flagship site in Strand Street and are in negotiations to open outlets in a hospital in Joburg, at the head office of a global fitness brand as well as another location in the Cape,” explained Mike Morritt-Smith, I Love Coffee’s CFO.
A little over a year ago, I Love Coffee had just one barista and who operated from a small site in Claremont, with this in mind their current growth landscape is truly remarkable and show the dedication and understanding of the two directors who brought the company to where it is now.
According to co-founder and head of marketing and staff development, Gary Hopkins, Mike was instrumental in setting up Truth coffee and knows more than most about how to grow a coffee brand and consistently deliver an exceptional product. “We both know that our story sometimes gets our foot in the door, but it is our overall offering that will keep us there,” said Hopkins.
The story is quite remarkable. Whilst exploring various social enterprise models, Gary was introduced to the social challenges facing the Deaf Community – non-recognition of sign language; comparatively poor levels of education; widespread unemployment and marginalisation – and the idea of coffee hit home as a way of helping people with and without disabilities spend time together.
“Our mission is to normalise Deaf employment, by showcasing the many contributions the Deaf can make to the success of an organisation. Ultimately we’d like to see a network of corporate and retail cafes throughout South Africa,” explained Hopkins.
In spite of the usual challenges that face social enterprises in SA – the team at I Love Coffee have managed to make a significant impact in a relatively short space of time.
They have directly impacted the lives of 14 staff members who have been or are in their employ, all of whom were unemployed before joining I Love Coffee. They have also served in excess of 700+ corporate clients who at some level can now ‘Sign’ or are at least aware of South African sign language – brochures and video feeds at their tills help educate people on the basics – while some of their customers have even gone on to take formal Sign lessons. The team will soon be offering classes in their cafes.
”Most importantly, the Deaf Community has embraced us and has fed back to us that they have experienced a greater sense of understanding and acceptance within the hearing community through their association with us,” added Hopkins.
It has not all been smooth sailing. “Deafness is the most overlooked of disabilities simply because it isn’t as visible as say a physical disability,” he explained. “By association our biggest challenge has been to engage with big business and funders to support our vision. There is a certain curiosity factor and we have attracted a lot of interest and media support, but genuine buy-in is rare. For the most part, we have had to rely on our own resources and tenacity to get to where we are.”
He says that funding and recognition from the SAB Foundation has helped tremendously (I Love Coffee were Finalists in their annual Social Innovation and Disability Empowerment Awards), but even with their support we have to go above and beyond to make our business successful,” explained Hopkins.
This attitude of going above and beyond is evident when you engage with the company first-hand. Simply put, the coffee is as good as any you can find in Cape Town, while the interaction with both the Deaf and hearing staff makes it clear that this is a business that puts its people at the heart of its success.
Customer-focused and product-driven, I Love Coffee live up to their self-styled moniker of the ‘world’s most caring coffee brand.’ They invest heavily in their Deaf staff, both on the job and in their lives outside of work.
One example is Thembelihle Qezu. “Thembe was born Deaf and only acquired language at the age of 9 when he was enrolled at a Deaf school in Worcester. He completed his schooling at the National Institute for the Deaf, where he qualified in hospitality. He was sent home to await an internship to complete his graduation. He waited six months before he interned at I Love Coffee. He was one of the first and is now Head barista and Assistant Manager of I Love Coffee’s corporate store. He is a natural teacher and has taught barista skills to both Deaf and hearing people. As soon as funding allows we will be sending him on a 9-month accreditation process to become the first accredited Deaf barista trainer in the world. Despite choosing not to speak, he has exceptional communication skills and often operates the cafe on his own. He has also requested to develop his kitchen skills and is now working under our head chef to do so,” said Hopkins.
The team at I Love Coffee have also developed a range of compostable coffee pods, in keeping with their ethos of care and social responsibility. These are sold at their corporate store, as well as direct to consumers, guesthouses and boutique hotels. “We are hoping to grow this avenue to support our ultimate vision of an I Love Coffee roastery, which will allow us to increase impact and absorb the bulk of our trainees into employment, whilst opening channels for new partnerships and supply contracts,” Hopkins added.
Support I Love Coffee and those with hearing disabilities, one cup of delicious coffee at a time.
Picture: I Love Coffee