Courtesy of 1951 Coffee Company

Inside 1951 Coffee Shop, A Berkeley Café Staffed Entirely by Refugees

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It's the grand opening of Berkeley's new 1951 Coffee Shop, and despite the downpour outside, almost every seat in the house is full. The sleek wood and charcoal interior—adorned with bright stripes snaking across the walls, espresso bar, and floors—houses a diverse swath of the local community, from chatty groups of Cal students to weekend warriors glued to their laptops coming together under one roof to escape the rain and sip lattes.

With Verve coffee beans, artisanal local pastries, and a modern design, the Channing Street cafe could easily be considered just another entrant into the third-wave coffee scene embraced throughout the Bay Area. But 1951 Coffee also serves its community in another way: by bringing employment opportunities to refugees and connecting them to the neighborhood they now call home.


The nonprofit organization 1951 Coffee Company, which runs the cafe, works primarily with refugees and asylees, most referred by local organizations who assist these groups in the surrounding area. Named after the year the United Nations first defined and set forth guidelines for the protection of refugees, 1951 offers a free two-week coffee training program, during which trainees are able to brew coffee and craft espresso drinks without the pressure of customers or orders. Graduates of the 1951 training program have gone on to jobs at Blue Bottle, Peet's Coffee, and Dropbox (which has an onsite café), and now have the opportunity to interact with coffee-loving locals at the physical café, which officially opened January 22.


1951 Coffee Company cofounders Rachel Taber and Doug Hewitt. (Courtesy of the cafe)


Cofounders Rachel Taber and Doug Hewitt first decided to open 1951 Coffee Shop back in 2015, but it took a little convincing to get the idea up and running. Taber and Hewitt had both worked for the International Rescue Committee in Oakland, in different programs but in the same office, and Hewitt was looking for his next venture while Taber was on maternity leave with her second child.


"Doug mentioned the idea for a coffee shop over lunch, and I called him up one Friday night and said, 'Hey, what do you think about doing this idea?' And he was like, 'Oh, well…'" remembers Taber. "It felt like a denied proposal!"


"It was more of a delayed proposal," counters Hewitt.



After two months of back and forth and some trepidation over finding a commercial space and negotiating rents, the duo lucked out when they realized Berkeley's First Presbyterian Church was looking for a coffee shop with a social mission to take over a space on its building's ground floor. After negotiating permits and establishing their nonprofit status, Taber and Hewitt's good fortune continued when they connected with Berkeley design firm Montaag, which was able to realize their vision and design the space in way that was both creative and uplifting—pro bono.


"There are a lot with refugee stories that are sometimes very tragic and difficult, and the last thing we'd want is for refugees to be working in a space that was constantly bringing them down," says Hewitt. "[Montaag] actually interviewed a few refugees that had moved to Oakland to hear their backstories and what their challenges were. They put a lot of work into it."



While Taber and Hewitt continued to find partners and secure funding, they also discovered that the coffee industry was an ideal starting point for refugees and other new entrants to the U.S. workforce. Both knew that coffee shop positions paid a little more than your average entry-level opportunity, since both had worked as baristas and Hewitt had logged some time with the coffee roasting side, but they quickly discovered that the Bay Area was uniquely poised to welcome additional workers into the business of caffeine, as well as serve the refugee community.


"Based on a survey of barista incomes, San Francisco and Oakland were the first and third highest barista incomes in the country, respectively, and also the first and third respective highest tips," says Taber. "And the Bay Area has the largest per capita coffee shops, expected growth, and depth and breadth of expected coffee sales."


"You can move up and around the coffee industry without having to access really expensive formal education," adds Hewitt. "And we also knew that from cultural perspectives, there are very few cultures that would have a problem with coffee or tea. Coffee and tea are welcoming beverages from around the world, so that kind of aligns with our mission as well."


Aside from offering employment, 1951 Coffee Shop also serves as a place for refugees to share their stories, and for customers to be able to put a face to an issue that's often misunderstood or misrepresented.


"We want to be a part of adding good, positive, personal information into the discussion around refugees," says Hewitt. "We want the cafe to be a convergence point for the community and refugees, and for both to be changed and feel like one community when they leave. That feeling of belonging is immeasurable. You can simply make an impact by being a customer." // 2410 Channing Way (Berkeley), 1951coffee.com

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