“Let’s connect over coffee” is a universal phrase that, to many of us, means networking and being seen for our inherent potential.
Here’s why the I Love Coffee brand is so remarkable. They may be in the coffee industry, but they’re in the business of transforming that universal phrase into an inclusive one, and as they say, “serving not just coffee, but the deaf community too”.
In South Africa, around 70 to 80% of deaf adults are unemployed, primarily because the only language they speak wasn’t recognised as an official language until recently. This meant getting an education was extremely difficult.
Gary Hopkins saw the opportunity to change this. Through I Love Coffee, they offer soft and hard skills training to help their staff gain confidence to enter the job market. Many perceive the brand as the café operated by deaf baristas. In truth, their organisation has woven deafness right through the business. They’re the only coffee brand in the world where coffee is roasted, packed, brewed and served by the deaf.
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“We believe in supported employment rather than sheltered employment, so our staff interact directly with customers and vice versa. That way everyone finds common ground, and as we say ‘what better common ground than ground coffee’.”
Before Covid, they’d hoped to support employees in one day running their own cafés, but the pandemic only served to exacerbate the associated risks of ownership, shutting down even their own in-office cafés in Cape Town and Johannesburg overnight.
Fortunately, a building in Claremont had been purchased for their roastery, and they were able to pull all staff in-house and pivot the business. This central hub in Garfield Road that houses their roastery, central kitchen, bakery and flagship café is now thriving and will soon also be home to their training academy.
They realised that the impact for the deaf community would be greater through their network of in-office cafés, now slowly re-opening, with six currently active in SA and four in London.
As they expand internationally, they’re also developing a social franchise model.
The launch of their local training academy will offer a host of locally and internationally accredited hospitality courses in sign language. Thembe, their longest serving barista, will be mentoring many new learners walking through their doors.
“Our dream is to become the training school of choice for anyone wanting to employ deaf baristas, cooks and bakers anywhere in South Africa.”
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At this point, the team are easily living up to their moniker of “kindest coffee brand”. But for Gary those words are all-encompassing. They’ve ensured the wasteful nature of the coffee industry is mitigated by donating nearly four tons of coffee and food waste monthly to community gardens and eliminating all single-use plastic.
They now also stock Wagalots Dog Biscuits made by young adults with intellectual challenges. These are proving to be one of their biggest sellers.
“When I had the idea of I Love Coffee in 2015, I never imagined I’d fall in love with a community as deeply as I have. To see our staff exceed their own expectations brings me endless joy.”
Deafness is one of the largest disabilities affecting more than four million South Africans. What I Love Coffee has accomplished is not only facilitating the social upliftment of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, but bringing a disability that goes unseen into a richly sensory realm for all of us, because to truly connect over coffee is not a conversation, it’s a feeling. And that is culture we can and should all have access to.
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