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This Might Be the Bay Area's Most Interesting Coffee Shop

At Berkeley’s 1951 Coffee Company, refugees always are welcome—on either side of the cash register

In a college town like Berkeley, if you’ve seen one coffee shop, you’ve seen them all. One, however, on Channing Way, just a few blocks from campus, pours a unique twist: It’s operated entirely by refugees.

The shop, 1951 Coffee Company, is linked to a program to train political refugees with the skills they need for careers slinging coffee in the United States. Founders Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber, both in their 30s, started the business and training program to provide a platform of self-assistance for these newcomers to the country.

1951 Coffee Company's baristas in-training
1951 Coffee Company's baristas in-training (©Angelica Ekeke)

“Through training, refugees become connected to a specific industry, which gives them a competitive edge that general job training classes don’t always offer,” says Taber.

Hewitt adds: “Working at the coffee shop puts people right in the middle of American culture where they can interact with other Americans every single day. It allows them to become a part of the fabric of our country, which is an important place for them to be after what they’ve been through to get here.”

Teaching Baristas

Officially, 1951 Coffee began in 2016. A year earlier, Hewitt and Taber had met working for the International Rescue Committee in Oakland, and shared a dream of creating a business to help refugees assimilate into American society. Hewitt was roasting coffee on the side and knew the coffee industry would be a soft landing spot for some of the folks who he and Taber wanted to help. So the duo formed a nonprofit and formulated a plan of attack.

 The founders of 1951 Coffee Company with their employees
The founders of 1951 Coffee Company Rachel Taber (front row, second from left) and Doug Hewitt (back row, second from right) with their employees (©Angelica Ekeke)

The first order of business was a name. Ultimately they chose 1951 Coffee after the year the United Nations first defined and set forth guidelines for the protection of refugees.

Next, they set up a 40-hour training program, held regularly at Regeneration Church in Oakland. Hewitt worked with independent coffee shop owners and other friends in the business to build a two-week curriculum that blends book study with on-the-job practice. Students learn about the differences between coffee drinks. They learn how to use point-of-sale technology such as Square. At the end of the second week, there’s also an open-house demo day during which baristas ply their craft in front of managers from local coffee shops looking to hire.

Inside the 1951 Coffee Company cafe
The interior design of 1951 Coffee Company mimics a public transit system map. (©Angelica Ekeke)

“The refugees aren’t people who have job experience here in the U.S.—they’ve never been here before so this is the first [employment-related activity] they’re doing,” says Hewitt. “The open sessions allow them to add something of substance to the whole interview process.”

So far, about 70 students have graduated the class, and nearly all have found jobs in the industry.

Crash-Course Cafe

Of course the training program is only one half of the business at 1951 Coffee. Once Hewitt and Taber saw how many of their graduates were being hired elsewhere, it hit them: Why not create their own coffee shop where graduates can work to earn $13-$15 per hour (and even more with tips)?

Results of the barista training program
A successful product of the barista training program (©Angelica Ekeke)

The shop opened on the ground floor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley in January of this year, and now is open daily. To build out the space, Hewitt and Taber retained the services of local design and architecture firm Montaag, and the company became an investor in the business, too.

Montaag spent months working on the project, ultimately settling on a design that mimics the different-colored lines that crisscross across a public transportation’s system maps. Today, when you visit the coffee shop, the motif is omnipresent—starting on the sidewalk out front and leading patrons right up to the front counter.

There are other subtle (and not-so-subtle) touches designed to emphasize the refugee experience.

1951 Coffee Company barista
1951 Coffee Company barista (©Angelica Ekeke)

In a back corner of the seating area, a tiny map of the world has pins representing the countries from which employees hail: Bhutan, Burma, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Eritrea. There also is a giant signboard behind the main barista station that explains what the average refugee’s journey is like.

For Taber, the broad-sweeping effort is everything.

“The No. 1 thing for me is that we are striving to help people new to the country find dignity,” she says. “The reality is that the jobs they find most often are not always dignified. The way they are treated by most Americans is that they are feared or pitied, but they’re not treated as a human. And we want to combat that.”

Cafe manager and Bhutanese refugee Meg Karki
Cafe manager and Bhutanese refugee Meg Karki (©Angelica Ekeke)

Face of the Program

Perhaps nobody embodies the 1951 mission better than Meg Karki, a 28-year-old refugee from Nepal who came to the United States six years ago to escape political persecution.

Karki connected with Hewitt and Taber within months of his arrival and almost immediately signed up for classes in barista school. He describes his first few weeks of work as a barista as “bad,” but notes that eventually he learned. Today, Karki is manager of the café and now also runs the training program—two big jobs in the world of 1951.

“For me this isn’t just about the coffee shop; it’s about the fact that people can come to the United States and, with help from very generous people, do anything,” says Karki, who originally is from Bhutan. “For me, and for other [refugees] this is still a land of opportunity.”

1951 Coffee, 2410 Channing Way, Berkeley. 510.848.6252