I Love Coffee: SA's Deaf Run Cafe

Thursday, 31 August, 2017
I Love Coffee
Saatchi & Saatchi Building
16 Ebenezer Road
Green Point
Cape Town

We caught up with Gary Hopkins, founder of I Love Coffee!

How did the cafe begin? And what makes coffee such a great fit as a career path for deaf people?

I opened our first cafe in June of 2016 after a visit to DeafSA where I was told about the social challenges facing the Deaf. They stem largely from the fact that South African Sign Language (SASL) is not recognised as an official language. That means due largely to ignorance, hearing people class the Deaf as disabled because we can’t speak SASL. From the outset I must stress I am not a spokesperson for the Deaf, I’m only relaying what I have learned. The Deaf refer to Deaf culture, which in layman’s terms refers to their language and the way they live their lives from the use of light alarms to how conversations are held. It really is no different from say Italian or Japanese culture in that being unique doesn’t imply something less.

I can’t speak for other coffee brands but we set out to break the communication barriers between the hearing and the Deaf and coffee seemed a logical starting point. Coffee is the great equaliser and for some of our baristas it is merely a launching pad into other careers. What makes I Love Coffee unique is that we offer all our staff the opportunity to own a cafe which I believe is pretty unique.

Are all the employees at i love coffee hearing impaired? Do you have a partner organisation that you work with to identify people who would love to work in the cafe space?
One of our aims is to created an integrated work environment. We feel it is as important for our Deaf staff to learn cafe skills as it is for our hearing staff to learn SASL. As a rule of thumb we hire 2 Deaf staff to 1 hearing staff member. We don’t only hire Deaf baristas, our kitchen staff and cashiers are Deaf too. Initially we hired NID graduates but we don’t have any formal partnerships and we now interview staff from CVs that are sent to us

What was the training process like? I know if I ever train someone I tell them to listen for the sounds especially when it comes to steaming milk, was an interpreter utilised?
Initially we trained with an interpreter but now our head barista trains both Deaf and hearing staff. Yes they are audio clues but we soon learnt that the visual clues are just as distinct.

What has the reception from the public been like in your first year of trading?

Overwhelmingly positive. We do a lot of pop-up events and people often don’t even realise they have been served by a Deaf person. We’ve also seen our regular customers embracing signing and are eager to learn more than just coffee signs.

What are your goals at I Love Coffee?
Our immediate goal and need at the moment is to get our training accredited. We are looking for sponsorship right now to make that happen. It is very important that Deaf train Deaf in our organisation, that for us is real empowerment. After that you’ll have to wait and see. All I can say for now is that we are not afraid to dream big.

Please forgive our ignorance, Is sign language different from country to country?

Yes every country has their own sign language. Even across South Africa we have different dialects, but in its purest form it is non-racial and as it isn’t linked to any one spoken language. If we learnt SASL we would all be able to communicate with each other. The one hilarious difference between American Sign Language and SASL is that the sign from “name”, as in my “name”, means toilet in SASL.

Were there signs for cappuccino etc or did you create new signs?
Most of the signs did exist but some our staff have come up with. Our company name for example was one that was created.

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