The Meaning of Empowerment with I Love Coffee Group

Friday, 8 March, 2024

By Ayanda Dlamini 

Prepare to immerse yourself in a narrative of growth, resilience, and community. This week we welcome back I Love Coffee Group. For those that are new - I Love Coffee Group is a powerhouse community of coffee enthusiasts, who are dedicated to empowering the deaf community. 

As I approached my conversation with Greg Hopkins, the driving force behind I Love Coffee, he made it abundantly clear that he was seeking more than just superficial inquiries. Urging me to set aside preconceived notions. I found myself navigating the uncharted, armed only with Google searches and online statistics. I very quickly felt engulfed by the vastness of the deaf community and the nuances of its culture. 

This was a very important point for me, as it influenced my journey into exploring the deaf community at the humble acknowledgment of my own ignorance. I’m grateful to Greg’s passion to look beyond the surface, his dedication to empowering the deaf community and his willingness to delve deep. Join me as we peel back the layers of time, to uncover the profound evolution of this innovative coffee shop. 

I Love Coffee has been around for almost 8 years now. How has the business evolved and what changes have you seen in the Deaf community ? 

Considering we started out in the corner of a gym with a borrowed coffee machine, things have changed quite a bit. Firstly, we had to figure out how best to work with the Deaf community, from learning sign language and understanding Deaf culture; to how to engage with customers and recruit new staff. Luckily for us, there was tremendous interest in I Love Coffee and great support for us. The business grew very quickly, and we now roast our own coffee, have a central kitchen, bakery and have a very popular flagship café in Claremont with Deaf staff across our business. 

Sign Language is now an official language.  How did your staff and customers respond to this news?

Naturally our staff were delighted. Most South Africans don’t realise that 70 – 80% of Deaf adults are unemployed.  Having their language recognised is the first step to having access to a better education which should lead to improved employment. We’ve seen a massive interest in our customers wanting to learn to sign for more than a cup of coffee, so we have started offering formal sign language classes at our café.  

How did the pandemic affect you?

Initially it was a massive blow. We were operating 8 in-offices cafés at the start of 2020 and those closed overnight. We made a promise to our 26 staff members that they wouldn’t lose their jobs and thanks to the incredible support of our funders and neighbouring communities, we were able to keep our promise. It took a great deal of blood, sweat and tears to turn our empty factory space in Claremont into what it is today. Looking back, it shook us out of our comfort zone and the business is stronger for it. 

What are your goals for 2024 and are you planning to expand the business outside of South Africa?

In a month or two we will open our Training Academy where we will offer accredited hospitality training by our Deaf trainers, to Deaf Learners in sign language. We’ll also be offering training for companies to absorb trained Deaf staff.  

As for the rest of the world, we already employ Deaf baristas in London, and we have a few international universities working on scaling strategies including a social franchise model. The truth is that Deafness is everywhere and wherever you find Deaf people there is always unemployment.  

What misconceptions about your business and Deafness do you wish more people understood?

The biggest misconception about I Love Coffee is that, we are what I call an “ag shame charity.”  We are a Social Enterprise in the true sense of the word, and we derive most of our revenue from trading. To do this, we have to maintain the highest standards of quality and that is due largely to our excellent work force. When people visit us, they get to see what an integrated workplace looks like (about 70% of our staff are Deaf), and that Deaf people aren’t limited to sheltered employment.  

On a personal level what do you enjoy most about working with Deaf employees in your team?

I love the language, knowing how to sign is incredibly useful. Most of all I derive a great deal of pleasure watching our staff grow and go on to win competitions against their hearing peers. I Love Coffee is part of a greater disability community and we’ve created an inclusive space where customers both disabled and not, feel safe and welcomed. I like to believe that we are taking the stigma out of disability with every coffee we serve.  

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