Sbu Nkolothi, the man behind CoffeeLAB, Ballito

Friday, 28 October, 2022

“For me, the formula behind incredible coffee is people and the relationships built. It’s been such an amazing experience, I’ve learned a lot,” says Sibusiso Nkolothi, owner of CoffeeLab, an espresso bar inside The Gallery, in Ballito’s Lifestyle Centre on the KZN North Coast.

S’bu has been a part of the fabric of Durban coffee culture for a long time. He’s one of those baristas that leaves an impression on you when you meet him for the first time, remembers you when you see him again and then drops you a text message every now and again, just to stay in touch. Now, he stands inside his own store, almost a decade later as a business owner and a maven of the local community. 

S’bu grew up around Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe under very difficult circumstances. 

“There were 5 of us kids and we lost our parents at a young age. It was a very tight, limited world. I finished school and got a job as a caddy on a golf course at Elephant Hills Golf Resort. It was fun work because I loved being outdoors and being active, but the best part was listening to the businessmen, to the professionals  – how they talked, how they behaved, the things they spoke about.  I decided that I would learn as a much as I could. I actually first got the idea of visiting Durban from a crew of wonderful Indian golfers that were visiting.” 

S’bu’s talent with people was quickly recognised and he started working at the hotel itself, where he first got a taste for hospitality. He has an easy, natural charm and is a skilled listener.

“I would do anything to improve myself. Waiter, barman… it didn’t matter. I tried to learn something from everything that I did. I met so many guests and made so many friendships, that still hold strong today.”

“When I eventually took the chance on coming to Durban, it was the FIFA World Cup that drew me here. I initially wanted to go to the USA and live there, but I thought, let me enjoy this experience first.” 

In the bustling hype of the football, he quickly found a job running a place on the Durban Beachfront, working for some admittedly, unsavoury characters. 

“But I thought, I can either quit or I can persevere. I made a decision to be disciplined even though my life was chaos at that time. Not knowing where I was going to sleep, no support system.” He looks down at his hands, thinks for a minute and then beams his brilliant smile.  “I ran that place and made it a success,” he says with satisfaction, though the flicker of uncertainty and hesitation tells there is a lot more that happened during that time that he doesn’t really want to delve into. An unfailing positive attitude is one of S’bu’s greatest strengths. “And now look, I’m still here! “ he beams. 

A few odd jobs later, S’bu found himself a stable position at Mamma Luciana’s, a popular Italian restaurant in Durban. He watched the team on the coffee machine with interest. 

“I thought to myself, how does the coffee get from the hopper into the cup? How does that happen? I needed to find out more! I asked so many questions, I asked them to teach me. The more I asked, the more interested I became. I met Chris Rootman, then at VDP at Mamma’s too, and he taught me so much. I also wondered – why do people love this coffee so much?”

In the midst of this new fascination with coffee, Ray Fredman, came to the Mamma’s kitchen and taught him about the wonders of food and flavour. 

“I was still learning about coffee, but I ended up learning about cooking, baking, putting menus together too. It was a beautiful time of learning and capturing all these experiences.”

When Ray left Mamma’s, the deli he had set up still had to run and S’bu was in the hot seat.

“I had to do everything there. It was the foundation for running my own business. But it was chaotic and I had to acknowledge that I was not ready!”

“Then I met Travis Gale in 2013. He was starting a co-working space called The Sett and he asked me to come join him. Being involved with The Sett added a different dimension to my life. The team taught me about myself, about the universe, about expectations – it was a huge time of personal development for me.” 

Because of the nature of a start-up, there was also a lot more time for him to get to grips with that question he had long been asking, what does coffee mean to people?

“I watched all the videos I could on YouTube. I started engaging with the people who would come work there, like Kyle Fraser who was with Colombo Coffee at the time and I met Leon Mathurie from Coastal Coffee, who still supplies me coffee today. I collaborated with the guys from Marley coffee and also Steampunk. I did as much as I could!”

“At The Sett, I was able to be calm and focused. I started a facebook page called ‘All About Coffee’ and I had over 2000 followers in a short time – mostly coffee crazy people overseas, we would just chat about all kinds of coffee ideas. I started building on this, I think the Coffee Lab brand was born in those chats.”

When The Sett closed its original location, S’bu moved across to Private Property which had its headquarters in the same building. “I had gotten to know Justin Clarke, founder of Private Property and One Africa Media, who would pop in for coffee at The Sett. He was also big into life coaching. I kept thinking on this idea of building up baristas – their attitudes, their mental state, their skills and their personality. I had the opportunity to put this into practice while working there. Some of these guys here at Coffee Lab,” he gestures behind him at his team, “were the first that I trained at Private Property in this way. And they are here today.”

Then the owner of The Gallery, Jayne Digby stops in. “I was looking for someone to run the coffee shop and we had two weeks to opening. I got a very professional flyer from S’bu with all his credentials and within a few days it was a done deal!” she tells us.

“The Coffee Lab team bring such a vibe. He brings people into this space. He’s very personal and he’s a good listener. The people love him and they love his team. He has built such friendships here. It is a special community,” says Jayne.  

And the locals are certainly loyal. Every person who buys a coffee in the two hours we’re chatting to S’bu is greeted by name and he tells us a little about each person and how awesome they are.

Leon arrives to deliver coffee. They clearly have a great relationship, as the banter starts to fly and they click into business mode, beans are stacked, delivery notes signed, future orders placed, and then it’s back to the banter! Leon even poses for a photo! 

“S’bu has been using the Genesis Blend from Coastal Coffee for a long time.He likes to think he developed it himself, but then every customer that uses it likes to claim that”, he says with a cheeky smile and a wink at S’bu. 

“Pulling espresso shots is a skill and every shot is different. To me there is no exact answer to the question of how long a shot should be pulled for, I believe you let it run until it looks right. Learning and understanding the beans brings us to that point. It’s about passion and for me, it’s about a specific type of barista that is more than just their coffee skills. My baristas have to be excited about serving customers with passion.”

So where did the name Coffee Lab come from? “I sat down with Glen, the designer, I said I want to capture the idea of mixing what we have in our heart, with the coffee. I’m quite philosophical about life and I want to understand people and I want them to know that they are getting more than a cup of coffee here, it’s a cup of love. And we’ve got that down to a formula, but it’s not the formula of grams versus millilitres, it’s the formula of making people happy.”

S'bu talks about uplifting others and training more people. “I have a dream. I want to help people who haven’t found their passion in life yet. I want to training them in coffee but also to be a better person, and if I can make that happen – I know they will be successful and that is how I want to be successful, through uplifting others.”

There is a thread running through S’bu’s story and it’s one of patience, determination and genuine curiosity. Taking the time to learn and connect with each person he meets. 

“It is always about people. I’m passionate about building relationships and it is what I love most. Creating those relationships and making friends with people has always been the key to my success.” 

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