Sun | Nov 18, 2018

Deaf Can! Coffee quietly extending market reach through barista network

Published:Wednesday | July 25, 2018 | 12:00 AMSteven Jackson/ Senior Business Reporter
DeafCan team members (from left) Carlyle Gabbidon first barista and manager; Andreen Smith, barista and lead baker; and Fabian Jackson, head barista and manager, at the company’s café at Cassia Park Road in Kingston on July 18.
DeafCan barista and lead baker, Andreen Smith.
DeafCan head barista and manager, Fabian Jackson.
DeafCan first barista and manager, Carlyle Gabbidon.
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Deaf Can! Coffee, a social enterprise that trains deaf workers in the art of coffee and baking, continues to grow its footprint with the addition of a mobile cafe, which would put its barista staff in 13 locations nationwide.

And while Deaf Can! is not structured in the same way as other coffee chains, it quietly operates one of the largest networks of branded baristas within Jamaica.

The company has seen the number of daily sales transactions nearly double in the past year, while its staff complement has tripled from three to 10 full-time workers, in addition to two interns. Those trained in coffee preparation become baristas and serve an array of coffee drinks at various third-party cafes and offices.

The company earns money from selling its barista services and branded coffee products, which are distributed through retail chains.

"Right now, we are breaking even, but in five years we want to be in more restaurants rather than cafes," said head barista and manager Fabian Jackson, who communicated in sign language, with co-founder Blake Widmer as interpreter, for this interview. Jackson added that widening Deaf Can!'s reach from coffee into pastries and food would increase the skill sets and therefore employability of its deaf community.

 

OWNS ONE LOCATION

 

Deaf Can! owns only one fixed location and now a mobile truck. Comparatively, the largest coffee house in Jamaica, Cafe Blue, owns and operates six branded locations, while selling coffee and training baristas at 40 hotels regionally. Starbucks in Jamaica also operates five locations, with a sixth slated for New Kingston.

Despite the gap in capital and size, Deaf Can! matches the visual presence of the retail chains, as on any given day the Deaf Can! baristas in their branded uniforms are visible in multiple locations across Jamaica.

The enterprise has made enough of an impact that it is already being seen as a likely target for listing once the Jamaica Stock Exchange launches its planned 'social exchange'.

The Deaf Can! network itself is operated by HarvestCall Jamaica, a company co-founded by the husband and wife team, Blake and Tashi Widmer. The Deaf Can! concept, however, pays homage to the late Everlin Clarke, described as the first deaf person to set up a coffee business in Jamaica.

Profit remains only one motivation for Deaf Can!. Of equal importance is providing skills and employment for deaf workers in the growing field of coffee. Also, the company aims to sensitise the hearing community in an attempt to shed stereotypes.

"We want to change people's mind to show that deaf and hearing people can work together," said Manager Andreen Smith, barista and lead baker, who also communicated through the interpreter. "So if it was Deaf Can! growing its own cafe business, then people would only see deaf people operating it. We, however, want people to realise that deaf people can work with hearing people in any environment. So yes, we want to make money, but what motivates us is the vision to change the way people view us."

Deaf Can! operates its own cafe from Caribbean Christian Centre of the Deaf at Cassia Park Road, Kingston. The new mobile cafe trailer, imported at a cost of $2 million, will serve downtown Kingston mainly, but will also be deployed to events, the managers indicated.

 

MANAGING GROWTH

 

Deaf Can! sells it own branded coffee, but is also developing a 1.5-acre farm in Knockpatrick, Manchester, where they are planting 1,500 coffee seedlings - that is, one year old plants. The farm is meant to be a source of bean supply for Deaf Can!'s coffee brand.

"Right now, the cost to invest in our own space is a steep price. So we want to continue to manage our growth properly so we will just continue to focus on partnerships," said Jackson.

There are no immediate plans to open additional Deaf Can! cafes but rather the enterprise's focus is on increasing partnerships with existing chains to achieve increased employment for the deaf community.

Jamaica's deaf population hovers at around 7,000, which Widmer says is a guesstimate based on numbers bandied at local conferences over the years. As to employment, there are around 300 deaf or hearing-impaired persons enrolled in government and non-government special needs. However, the full employment rate is unknown.

The development of Deaf Can! comes at a time when large coffee companies are leading the redevelopment of a local coffee-brewing culture. Folk songs tell of the rituals of brewing coffee, a tradition largely lost since Independence, with the influx of instant coffee and the export of Jamaica's best beans.

"You are starting to see people requesting specific products, and that to me shows that the coffee culture is developing. So customers are coming in, knowing exactly what they want," said Carlyle Gabbidon, first barista and manager, through the interpreter.

"You also see people are making preferences and they will say that they prefer the deaf person to make the product. That tells me, too, that people care how their coffee tastes," he said.

Deaf Can!'s baristas serve three Cannonball cafes, Toyota Jamaica cafe, Jablum cafe, Bookaphilia, Cafe Mocha, the US Embassy, and Jakes. They also serve Active Traders and Digicel head office once a month.

Separately, Deaf Can! trains cafes in the art of serving and preparing coffee, including Brewed Awakening in Kingston and also a bookshop in Portmore. The consultancy can occur at its head office or at the client's location, Jackson said.

Deaf Can! earns its own keep from the sale of product and services, but has also benefited from one-off grants from JN Foundation/SEBI, USAID, RISE Life Management, European Union, Digicel Foundation and others.

The Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE) had last set a timeline of mid-2018 - now missed - to launch the JSE Social Exchange platform for social enterprises.

"We haven't heard anything else about it," Widmer told the Financial Gleaner.

Entities such as Deaf Can! which earn money doing social good, along with other entities that carry out cancer care, crime prevention, education or faith services, were encouraged indirectly to participate in the exchange.

"I would love to know more about it, but the challenge is whether investors who expect a financial return will be willing to invest to see social good and accept that as a return in itself," Widmer said.

The JSE indicated last year that social enterprise listings would look no different from existing listings, but investors would assess such operations on their "triple bottom line": impact on people, planet and profit.

steven.jackson@gleanerjm.com