1951 Coffee founders Doug Hewitt (far left) and Rachel Taber (far right) with barista trainees. Photo: Courtesy 1951 Coffee

What goes into a good cup of coffee? Ground beans, hot water and maybe a little cream or sugar?

For Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber it’s a lot more than that. Friends and former employees of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian organization that responds to worldwide crises, Hewitt and Taber see coffee as a venue for social justice.

This fall, they plan to open 1951 Coffee Company, a non-profit coffee shop in Southside Berkeley that will not only provide the community with quality coffee and excellent service, but also with greater awareness of refugees’ stories and a practical means of participating in them.

A three-pronged vision

The concept developed at a lunch, during which Hewitt and Taber were casually discussing plans for their respective futures.

“It was one item on a laundry list of potential things I could do after leaving the IRC,” said Hewitt, who had been working with the organization for five years and wanted to maintain his involvement with refugees. “I wanted to find a way that was significantly more [involved] in the community, connecting people deeper to that community.”

Taber, who had also worked with the IRC and has a background in social enterprise, was intrigued by the café concept. For the next two months she and Hewitt let the idea percolate. “Certain weeks I was really into it and he wasn’t or he was really into it and I wasn’t,” said Taber.

A trainee gets ready to make pour-over coffee. Photo: Courtesy 1951 Coffee
A trainee gets ready to make pour-over coffee. Photo: Courtesy 1951 Coffee

The catalyst for moving forward didn’t directly come from either founder, but from the First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, where Taber is a member. One of Taber’s friends was walking by a student lounge owned by the church when she struck up a conversation with the pastor, who remarked that the space was underutilized and would be perfect for a coffee shop with a social mission. Taber immediately shared this news with Hewitt.

“In order for this to take place, we knew from the very beginning we would have to have buy-in from the community at large,” said Hewitt. “When Rachel said that [First Presbyterian was] considering letting us use that space, it was like things were just falling into our lap.”

In May 2015 Hewitt and Taber officially began mapping out their ideas and came up with a three-pronged vision that would include a café, a training program and a platform for advocacy in the community.

“It might be noted that we started doing this well before the refugee crisis ever became part of the political conversation,” said Taber.

“For us working in the refugee realm, refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean had already been taking place for years,” added Hewitt, whose first introduction to refugees (and to the coffee industry) came while working at Starbucks in 2007.

Bridging the gap between refugee arrival and resettlement is something about which both founders care deeply. They chose a coffee concept for a number of reasons. The industry is popular and deep — from manufacturing and packaging to roasting, barista work and management. Coffee is apprentice-based, which means newcomers can learn by action without the barrier of book study or complex language acquisition. Café work allows for flexible hours and initial income as refugees continue job-seeking and settling. It’s also culturally appropriate and uniting.

“Every culture on the face of the earth has a coffee or tea ritual that is welcoming and brings people together,” said Taber.

1951 Coffee derives its name from a convention held by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva in 1951. During that convention, members first defined the word “refugees” and set out protection protocols for such people.

“It’s in the spirit of that convention that we [are doing] this,” said Hewitt. “We’re trying to create a space — a coffee shop — that recognizes that refugees are here and sets out a way to help them move forward.”

A training program that maximizes refugees’ potential

A trainee practices customer service. Photo: Courtesy 1951 Coffee
A trainee practices customer service. Photo: Courtesy 1951 Coffee

According to the US government, a refugee should be financially independent within six months of arrival — a steep hill to climb when you’re coming out of crisis in a foreign country. By equipping new arrivals with lucrative barista skills, Hewitt and Taber hope to help them beat the odds.

“We wanted to create something that would allow people to get jobs when they first arrive, but also that will propel them onward,” said Hewitt.

As of June 1, three cohorts and a total of 17 students from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Vietnam, Burma and Guatemala have graduated from 1951’s 40-hour training program, which takes place in the coffee bar of Regeneration Church in Oakland. Regular trainings will continue to run at Regeneration, even after 1951 is up and running, with the potential to train upwards of 40 baristas a year.

The course takes two weeks and includes an introduction to brewed coffee and espresso drinks, sanitation, hygiene and customer service. There are two mock days during which participants practice serving actual customers, including potential employers from the coffee industry and elsewhere.

“It’s an opportunity for us to convince other American employers,” said Hewitt. “Often in a normal hiring process it’s all on paper. This gives an opportunity for refugees to show what they can do.”

Hewitt and Taber want to maximize the potential for their trainees to network. “If we can create a system where we are actually … helping refugees get better paying entry-level positions that are helping them acculturate and helping other Americans meet them and see the wonderful qualities we see in them, that will be heard,” said Taber.

“Those are the things that move them from early government assistance programs to actually being able to sustain their lives here,” added Hewitt.

The café: offering “a gesture of welcome”

A trainee works on espresso drinks. Photo: Courtesy 1951 Coffee
A trainee works on espresso drinks. Photo: Courtesy 1951 Coffee

The café itself, which will be located at 2407 Dana St., is slated to open early in September. A use permit was approved by the city of Berkeley Feb. 25 and a lease agreement was approved April 19. Design is being overseen by Montaag, a Norwegian company that Hewitt found while scrolling through Pinterest. 1951 Coffee will be “one of Montaag’s landmark design projects.

“The refugee crisis really hits home for them,” said Taber. “They’re also coffee obsessed. It was like this tiny universe connection that was really amazing.”

The café will feature digital advocacy displays and a curved table on the flipside of the espresso machine, which will encourage baristas to chat with customers while making drinks. It will have a slower vibe than the typical coffee shop, and its layout will allow customers to flow past advocacy spaces and absorb the café’s story told through its design. There will be underground parking accessible by elevator to accommodate for wheelchairs and strollers.

“We want [the café] to be a convergence point for new-coming refugees and also for the community,” said Hewitt. He noted that in many cultures, coffee is shared as a gesture of welcome; in the case of 1951, it is newcomers who will offer the coffee.

1951 will serve coffee from Verve, a Santa Cruz-based coffee roaster dedicated to directly and ethically sourcing high-quality coffee.

“Sourcing coffee beans in and of itself is an ethical situation,” said Hewitt and Taber. When seeking out a coffee partner, they were looking for someone who would welcome their concept into the realm of specialty coffee.

“Verve comes across as a company that not only focuses on quality, but they’re also fun and accessible,” said Hewitt. “It’s not pretentious, but it’s still quality.”

The café will also serve tea, starting with tea bags and chai lattes and eventually offering more authentic chai blends, created with advisement from Nepali and Afghani friends. The café wants to appeal to the general public, but also provide some less common items like traditional food or specialty teas.

“I feel like we’ll have some really special ways that our employees can add their background and culture,” said Taber.

A venue for advocacy

Doug Hewitt hands out completion certificates to trainees. Photo: Courtesy 1951 Coffee
Doug Hewitt hands out completion certificates to trainees. Photo: Courtesy 1951 Coffee

In addition to providing training programs and potential employment, Hewitt and Taber also want to advocate for refugees through the overall design of the café. Their partnership with Montaag will be key to this aspect, as the company proposes images, colors, charts and layout.

“One of the main problems you have when you’re wanting to advocate for refugees within a space where refugees are going to be working is that you don’t want to remind them of refugee camps and conflict,” said Hewitt. “We want to do it in a way that really shows the things we see in refugees, which are their strength, their endurance, their courage and also their hope for the future.”

The café isn’t meant to serve as a museum, but it will be a space for intentional storytelling. “Whenever a customer comes into that space [we want them] to learn some important information about refugees that most people don’t know so that they have a clearer picture of who a refugee is,” said Hewitt.

By using the coffee shop itself as a venue for advocacy, Hewitt and Taber hope it will not only equip consumers with knowledge, but also encourage conversation. It’s easier, they say, for refugees to share their individual stories when listeners have a frame of reference for the experience.

Three years ago, Hewitt and Taber officed together at the IRC. They went in on buying an espresso machine, never guessing that their love for coffee and passion for refugees would lead to a business venture with the potential to change lives and transform communities. In just over a year, they’ve seen their dream of a three-pronged social enterprise take shape. There are walls and a website, bags of coffee, drafts of blueprints and most importantly, there are people.

“We haven’t done crowd-sourced funding, but we do have a crowd that is helping,” said Hewitt. From architecture, engineering and design services to raw materials, grant money and volunteer labor, 1951 has been gifted with resources. “A community of people have come together to make this happen, and it takes a community to make refugee resettlement possible.”

1951 Coffee will be at 2407 Dana St. (at Haste Street), Berkeley. Connect with the coffee shop on Facebook and Instagram.

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Freelancer Amanda Kuehn Carroll is originally from the cornfields of Nebraska, but she has spent most of her life wandering and wondering, often getting lost in the process. She is fascinated by the complexity...