Did you know that 5% of South Africa’s population is Deaf? And that 70-80% of Deaf adults are unemployed? The I Love Coffee group is a social enterprise that aims to broaden the horizons of SA’s Deaf community through skills development and training, and creating an inclusive working environment in their cafés where Deaf employees can engage with the hearing in a safe space.
I Love Coffee opened in 2016 and was founded by Gary Hopkins and Mike Morritt-Smith. Education is a vital part of what the I Love Coffee team does, and they’re in the process of accrediting their hospitality training through FoodBev SETA. “I Love Coffee is pretty unique in the sense that we provide training for the Deaf in their own language – the Deaf train the Deaf,” says Gary. “Historically educators, particularly at school level, are hearing, with a poor grasp of Sign Language. We have upskilled our original baristas to become trainers teaching both the theory and the practical skills required to be a barista, which requires a far greater focus on the visual elements of making coffee.”
Just before lockdown, the group had 9 cafés operating – including on-site corporate cafes in offices around SA, all fully staffed by Deaf baristas, chefs, kitchen staff – making them the largest-group of Deaf-run cafes in the world. However, they can now add a new claim: that of being the only coffee brand in the world where the coffee is roasted, packed, made and served by the Deaf.
At the start of lockdown, I Love Coffee was forced to close all their sites, with the very real possibility that some of the in-office cafes would not reopen. Gary and Mike had always planned for the business to have three pillars – coffee roastery, central kitchen supplying food and training academy – and now they had the opportunity to make it happen.
“We immediately turned our attention to completing our central kitchen in Claremont, Cape Town,” says Gary. “In May our imported 1968 Probat roaster arrived at port and Mike Morritt-Smith, our head roaster and jack of all trades, set about restoring her to her former glory.” They were also able to hire Togara Mabharani as their head baker after he was retrenched from the Mount Nelson Hotel, who comes with dozens of awards under his belt and years of training experience.
Once students complete training, I Love Coffee looks to place them behind coffee machines and in kitchens all over the country, which makes buy-in from the hospitality industry important. “As soon as hospitality starts opening up again we’d like to resume our conversations with procurement departments,” says Gary. “We are a proudly South African brand first and foremost but we are also a Level 1 B-BBEE supplier so the more coffee beans we can sell into the sector the greater our impact will be on Deaf unemployment.”
Currently, the Claremont space is the only active I Love Coffee branch and it’s quickly gaining a following. “Everything we sell is made on site and we’re getting a lot of attention from locals who can’t get enough of our croissants, sourdough loaves, filled bagels and delicious pies and tarts. The spread really has to be seen to be believed,” says Gary. “We recently spruced up our outdoor area so we encourage customers to join us for breakfast or to grab basket full of goodies and picnic in the park across the road. As spring approaches we are planning on opening a weekend market so we are looking for both visitors and vendors who support our ethos of kindness and inclusivity.”
Did you know?
We write Deaf with capital “D” almost 100% of the time. Just like different groups of people who share language or culture are written with capitals – like Xhosa, Afrikaans or Italian – the same goes for the Deaf community who share Sign Languages and a unique culture. Deaf is only used in its lower-case form by doctors to show the medical term for someone with deafness.