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Café serves coffee and care

4 Mar 2021

Gary Hopkins with a staff member

By Mokgadi Maponya

A chain of coffee shops is offering employment opportunities in the hospitality industry to deaf youth.

The first I Love Coffee shop was opened in Claremont, Cape Town in 2016.  It offers training and jobs to deaf youth as baristas, chefs and other positions in hospitality.

Today there are eight cafés in the chain, with three of them being in Johannesburg.

Gary Hopkins (56), a social entrepreneur and founder of I Love Coffee shop says “I had no idea how great the gap between the hearing and the deaf was but instinctively knew that coffee was the common dominator.” After discovering that around 80% of deaf adults were unemployed, he decided to find a solution.

“We’ve trained over 75 deaf youth, 90% of which have entered the work force or gone on to study further. I Love Coffee is a place of learning, and we don’t hire people who ‘just want a job’. We employ staff who want to learn skills to empower themselves and make a difference in their communities,” Hopkins says.

I Love Coffee hosts regular open days where learners who are studying hospitality and unemployed deaf youth can visit the Claremont café. This gives learners the chance to meet staff and ask questions about the work they do and what skills they can learn from them.

“What sets us apart is that we offer hospitality training for the deaf in sign language. If you join with no work experience you enter our barista programme. Deaf people need to be nudged towards self-confidence and this has proven the best way to do this. After three months the candidates’ progress is reviewed and then placed to start training,” Hopkins says.

Leon Mhlongo (24) is a chef and trainee baker who has been working at the I Love Coffee at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg for almost two years. He says he applied for his job after seeing the advertisement on the café’s Facebook page.

He says covid-19 has introduced a new challenge with the wearing of masks.

“We sign to each other, so masks haven’t made it difficult for us to communicate. But with a mask on we cannot see when a customer is speaking,” Mhlongo told ThisAbility.

To get around that problem, customers are encouraged to point at the menu or let a staff member teach them to sign. The shop also has videos to show customers how to place an order.

A regular customer at I Love Coffee, Eugene Erasmus, who is an IT specialist, says his experience at the café is fantastic and that the environment is really good. “I visit the Claremont café two times a day. I communicate with sign language and slow vocal communication when I want to place an order,” he says.

Hopkins says ultimately he longs for the day when deaf people can be educated and employed equally. Until then he’s happy to showcase what deaf people inclusion and an integrated workplace look like.



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