A coffee chain where the silent treatment is appreciated

Back in 2016, Gary Hopkins saw coffee as an opportunity to bridge the communication gap between the Deaf and hearing communities. (The word Deaf is spelt with a capital “D” to distinguish it as a culture and linguistic community.) Years later, I Love Coffee has nine cafés in Cape Town and Jo’burg, and is a fully fledged social enterprise creating training and employment opportunities for the Deaf in the hospitality industry.

“It comes down to the fact that sign language isn’t really recognised as a language in South Africa, and that has led to great levels of unemployment,” says Hopkins, co-founder of the social enterprise.

At I Love Coffee cafés, Deafness is not seen as a disability.  

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When we visit the central café in Claremont, Cape Town, it is unusually quiet. The typical background music found in most coffee shops is missing. The quietness is punctuated by the hum of coffee machines, light chatter and clanging from the open-plan kitchen.

But the stillness is deceiving. A closer look reveals robust conversations taking place in sign language. And if you’re observant, you might spot the odd familiar word like “hello” or “cappuccino”, which customers are encouraged to learn.

Hopkins says a common misconception is that the Deaf have to work with an interpreter. “We prove here that that’s not the case.” The Claremont café houses the roastery, central kitchen and training facility.

For Leon Mhlongo, a baker, communicating with hearing customers is all about compromise. “If it’s the first time I’ve met them I use pen and paper to communicate, and if they want to order something, I encourage them to write it down.” A television near the coffee station teaches customers how to sign their order.

Covid-19, however, has introduced a new challenge – masks. “Everyone wears a mask. It’s such a challenge when you can’t see their mouths.” Masks exacerbate the communication barrier by preventing lip-reading.

Mhlongo, who has been with the business for a year, says finding employment as a Deaf person is a challenge. Before working at one of the cafés in Joburg, he was a porter at a hotel where he was one of two Deaf employees.

“Communication is often the main problem and the main challenge in the workplace. So, for Deaf people to find employment they end up working with the schools [for the Deaf] or asking the Deaf Federation of South Africa [DeafSA] for support to find work,” Mhlongo says.

The 2018 statistics from DeafSA indicate that more than 1.6 million people are Deaf or hard of hearing in South Africa. Of those, about 70% are unemployed.

Mhlongo moved to Cape Town a month ago to sharpen his baking, breakfast preparation and barista skills.

“When we started the business our training programmes were informal but we’re now in the process of getting our training accredited through [the education authority] Seta,” says Hopkins. “Our view is that we will become the first accredited hospitality trainer that trains in sign language.” Hopkins says that empowering Deaf staff to become trainers will break the cycle where the hearing teach the Deaf, often to their detriment.

Employees begin with barista training to develop confidence and the ability to interact with customers. “From there they can grow into other areas, so some of our baristas have gone on to become kitchen hands and chefs. Some are learning to be bakers and we even have someone to roast coffee. But, beyond that, some of our baristas have gone on to leave the organisation and are now going back to university to become teachers.”

Shagan Fouten, who’s being trained in breakfast preparation, says working in an environment with a majority of Deaf staff is easier. “I know many Deaf people face difficulties because people think we are lazy, but it’s not laziness. It’s communication challenges that make it difficult for the Deaf.”

Fouten says interacting with retail staff can be difficult.

Hopkins, who didn’t know a word of sign language before co-founding the business, says every day is a learning experience.

“It’s very unfair to assume as a hearing person that I am more knowledgeable, more educated or more experienced.”

“Yes, our staff are desperate for knowledge, but we have to meet them halfway. So if I’m going to teach you how to make coffee, I have to be prepared to learn to sign. In this organisation, every one of our hearing staff is required to meet a Deaf person at least halfway.”