1951 Coffee Company is still helping refugees despite new challenges

Revenue is down at 1951 Coffee by 90%, but the nonprofit is hopeful it can survive the pandemic and continue helping refugees through its barista training program along the way.

Over four years, 1951 Coffee has trained 225 refugees from 29 countries, and aims to educate its customers about the challenges refugees and asylees face in seeking, attaining and sustaining employment while adapting to their new homes. Photo (from 2017): Angelica Ekeke

Four years ago, in January 2017, just days after Berkeley’s 1951 Coffee Company opened its Channing Avenue cafe staffed entirely by refugees, President Trump enacted his travel ban barring immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries and suspending the entire refugee resettlement program. Doug Hewitt, 1951 Coffee’s co-founder and CEO, recognized a bright side to that calamitous decision.

“We saw our ability to advocate increase,” he said, “because it was such an issue in people’s minds, and they were looking to meet people who were refugees and understand their story. So it actually amplified our platform. People in the Bay Area were trying to find a way to immediately have an impact. This was one of the few ways that one could make a difference in a refugee’s life here in America. We saw a large outpouring of support from that.”

Due to the COVID-induced lockdown, 1951 Coffee Company once again needs support to continue its good work.

Former 1951 Coffee Company trainee Anton Lents. Photo: Anna Mindess
Anton Lents credits the 1951 Coffee Company training program with helping him get the skills and confidence he needed to find a job after moving to the U.S. from Siberia as a political asylee. Photo: 1951 Coffee Company

During those first four years, 1951 Coffee trained 225 refugees from 29 countries including Uganda, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria and Bhutan. The company opened a second location at UC Berkeley’s ASUC Student Union, another cafe on College Avenue in Rockridge and piloted a Barista Training Program in San Diego and Seattle.

One of those trainees was Anton Lents. While growing up in Siberia, Lents was not a coffee drinker. He came to the U.S. in 2017 on a student visa and studied computer science at San Francisco City College, with the dream of working in digital animation.

“In 2019, I applied for political asylum as the only option to escape my difficult situation,” said Lents. At an orientation for new asylees, he heard about the training program at 1951 Coffee. Although it wasn’t a career that called out to him, he was struggling financially while he finished school, so he signed up. At the training, he found an inclusive community where he felt safe, and people wanted to help him.

“Coffee is community,” Lents said, “it brings people of different backgrounds together.” After learning valuable skills, he felt confident in job interviews. In 2019, he was hired at Saint Frank Coffee in San Francisco and has been working there throughout the pandemic.

Details about the arduous journey that refugees face are illustrated in the artwork that lines 1951 Coffee’ Berkeley cafe walls.
Details about the arduous journey that refugees face are illustrated in the artwork that lines 1951 Coffee’s cafe walls. 1951 Coffee is named for the year that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees asserted that “a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or person.” Photo: Anna Mindess

The pandemic has reduced revenues by 90%

When President Biden took office about a month ago, his administration overturned President Trump’s travel ban. 1951 Coffee has the tools to meet the needs that refugees face when they arrive in the U.S. Unfortunately, COVID has erected serious obstacles to 1951 Coffee’s ongoing nonprofit business. Today, its College Avenue location is permanently closed and Cal’s student union building is temporarily closed, with an uncertain future. Only three people are currently working at the Channing cafe and the company’s revenue is down 90% compared to 2019.

“Working with refugees and asylum seekers, you want to be able to provide as much stability as possible because you are working with a lot of people who are still on the margins, still new to the country,” said Hewitt, “When we initially shut down, we worked with everyone on the staff to make sure they could apply for every kind of benefit they could receive. And we also reached out to our graduates to see if any of them were in need. It was almost like doing social casework, connecting people to necessary resources. We reached out to people to make sure that they knew someone remembered and cared.”

Pre-COVID, one of the most valuable benefits of having a busy coffee shop frequented by Berkeley community members, was that customers would come in repeatedly and develop a rapport with the workers.

“That’s gone,” said Hewitt. “Just making a cup of coffee and handing it through the window is not the whole experience.”

With the new administration, it is anticipated that the U.S. refugee program will become as robust as it was in 2015-2016. The global need is still there. But as Hewitt cautioned, “It is a real question whether we will survive. The longer this goes on there is a real possibility that we may not make it. If the Paycheck Protection Plan second round comes through, we’re okay till maybe mid-summer. But if it doesn’t come through, we would need significant donations to survive past March. We are fighting to make it to that moving target of ‘normalcy,’ like any other business, or nonprofit.”

1951 Coffee adapted its training program online during the pandemic. It recently finished its first program of the year. Photo: 1951 Coffee Company
Rachael Eaton, 1951 Coffee Program Manager, leading the first virtual barista training class; 1951 Coffee adapted the program to be online during the pandemic. Photo: 1951 Coffee Company

Training program goes virtual during the pandemic

1951 Coffee recently finished the first online version of its training program, adapted since students can’t gather in person. The class included trainees from Eritrea, Guatemala and a husband and wife from Afghanistan. Blue Bottle Coffee donated French presses, AeroPresses and other coffee equipment to give to each student. “So while we are brewing here in the café and they are watching at home, they can brew along with us,” said Hewitt. “And they can keep the equipment at home at the end of class so they can continue to brew coffee.”

A benefit of the online format was that students in different locales, such as Fremont, Concord, Emeryville and Oakland, could participate virtually without the hassle of having to commute to Berkeley.

“We couldn’t taste their drinks,” said Hewitt, “but we could watch. As a test at the end of the training, they had to select a way of making coffee and then teach it back to the class. One of our biggest goals here is that when they go to apply for a job in coffee that they have enough skills and knowledge that they are competitive, and I know that was accomplished. On the last day of class, we did mock interviews on Zoom breakouts with all of the graduates.”

Along with coffee drinks, 1951 also raises money for its programs through selling coffee beans. Photo: Anna Mindess
Along with prepared coffee drinks, 1951 Coffee also raises money for its programs through selling beans. Photo: Anna Mindess

“There is a stereotype about immigrants that they are lazy, and taking resources supposed to go to citizens,” said 1951 Coffee graduate Lents. “Programs like 1951 are so important because they give an opportunity to people. Escaping your own country, leaving everything behind is a big deal. People should understand there are reasons for people to do that.”

Lents said that thanks to 1951 Coffee, he’s feeling hopeful about his future.

“I know I am going to succeed. I am paying taxes (more than the previous president!) I can’t vote, but I pay taxes. How am I NOT contributing to society?” Lents said. “I just want that fair chance to do so. I believe we should help each other and 1951 is a way to help people like me, immigrants.”

1951 Coffee Company is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. Order ahead online, purchase bulk coffee online or make a donation.