Department of Coffee

Words: Crush

What do you get when you take three young entrepreneurs, an idea that 95% of people said would never work, and bucket loads of ambition? You get cappuccinos in Khayelitsha.

2012 marked the beginning of this story for the three guys who at the time were acquaintances, but now, after years of hard work and the trials and tribulations of starting a business together, are firm friends.

Wongama Baleni, Vusumzi Mamile and Vuyile Msaku were following very different paths at one stage; Wongama and Vusumzi previously operated a laundromat and car wash, but the pair felt that they needed to bring something to the township that was more niche and not as competitive. They took the idea to the extreme, choosing something that, as yet did not exist in the community at all – real coffee. The pair met with Vuyile, who trained and worked as a barista in Cape Town and together, the three cemented the idea of creating Department of Coffee – the township’s first offering of cappuccinos, lattes and espressos. With help from The Ministry of Service Delivery, (an impact investment company that invests in social entrepreneurs), the trio were able to receive funding and mentorship to help them launch their brand.

Department of Coffee Cape Town

Sitting on an upturned crate chair in the middle of Khayelitsha, surrounded by bustling activity of township life, it is apparent what a huge leap of faith opening this business was. People hurry to and from trains, a young women sits patiently in the heat of an unusually sunny winter’s day and has her hair braided, further down a braai sizzles with walkie talkies (chicken feet) and a township dog mooches around looking for the odd street titbit. Yet here, in this somewhat unlikely, yet cosmopolitan environment, we are served a quality cup of coffee from the DoC collection window.

Sitting and chatting to Wongama he told us a bit about their journey and why they pursued this idea when so many people told them not to. The answer is actually quite simple – the guys wanted to do something for themselves; they wanted to be in charge of their own futures.

A fair amount of research was conducted before opening; they drank coffee in all of Cape Town’s coffee hotspots, getting to know the product, before Vuyile trained them as baristas. They also did research at ground level, asking the people of the township whether they would be prepared to pay for their coffee; the answer often being, ‘Why pay, we have our Ricoffy at home?’ So, not only did the trio have to navigate the usual obstacles of opening a business, they also had the challenge of convincing township folk to part with their money for a cup of ‘real’ coffee. For younger residents, who commute to town for work and are familiar with coffee culture, it is less of a hard sell, but for the older crowd, this concept was completely foreign. When DoC first opened their doors, many folk poked their heads in and asked if they were selling vetkoek, which is a far more common commodity in the area – the guys had a definite challenge on their hands.

Department of Coffee Cape TownThe opening of DoC has ultimately been a roaring success though; queues outside their doors and happy, coffee-drinking customers have propelled these brave guys into the caffeine stratosphere. They have since opened a mobile unit that is parked right inside the station, (where they can take their product right to their customers), as well as a sit-down store in Philippi.

In true social entrepreneurship SA-style, the three felt that their success would only really come full circle if they were able to give back. They wanted to create a way to leave a lasting impression long after the taste of their freshly ground Arabica was gone. They started the MuffinRun, (an initiative that is currently sponsored by Little Ashford Pre-school in Gauteng) where muffins are delivered to preschools in Khayelitsha to the delight of many little faces (and future customers!). The guys are also running training programs to pass on their skills and to train up new baristas. We spoke to one such trainee, Anna, who told us she was given the option of a couple of jobs to try through a placement initiative and one job was ‘making coffee’; she figured she would be putting a teaspoon of instant coffee in a cup with some hot water and milk. She got the surprise of her life when she was introduced to the fancy commercial coffee machine, whole beans and milk frothers! A whole new world has opened up for her as she learns the DoC way; she will work in one of the stores and perhaps one day may even own her own DoC franchise – the next step in the brand’s future plans.

I asked Wongama what pushed them forward when cynics scoffed at their concept and he told us, “People are afraid of failing and this often stops them from trying.” He says there is a culture of possibly being embarrassed when something doesn’t work ‘this one had a coffee shop, but now he doesn’t’ or ‘that one used to drive that kind of car, but doesn’t anymore’ and this trepidation stops them from even getting out of the starting gates.

When I asked about the biggest challenges they have faced, he tells me, “It’s the same with any business – cash flow and sometimes the lack of having someone behind you, providing that backbone of support.” Their mantra however is to try and fail, rather than not try at all. Smiling he told me, “Be the ball that bounces when thrown, instead of the one that just rolls away”. Sage advice indeed.

Department of Coffee Cape Town

Since its opening, DoC has gone from strength to strength – they now roast and grind their own beans and you can purchase a packet of freshly ground coffee from their branches. When we ask how they manage to sell ground coffee to customers who are only just getting used to the idea of real coffee, he showed us their solution. A nifty pottery filter holder, complete with DoC branding, made by Proudly Macasser Pottery; a paper filter fits on top, its popped over a cup and when filled with ground coffee, it filters the perfect cuppa. The guys will even give a demo to show exactly how it’s done to get maximum flavour. As Wongama laughingly told us “You can make great coffee wherever you are, even in the bush!”

The three certainly are the epitome of trailblazers, and in the face of much judgement, they stuck to their guns and have brought a wave of coffee culture to the township. Having been selected as part of Levi’s Pioneer Nation project (hence their trendy gear) and having been recognised by many as young entrepreneurs to watch, they certainly seem to have shown their naysayers up.

For an authentic coffee experience sans bearded hipsters, ladies who lunch and prices that make your eyes water, pop by DoC and enjoy a cuppa of Cape Town’s finest.

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