1951 Coffee Company works to support employees, refugees amid pandemic

1951 coffee company
Alexandra Nobida/File
Despite not being able to provide all of its workers with employment due to the pandemic, 1951 Coffee Company has been assisting them in finding other jobs and applying for unemployment.

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In 2015, 1951 Coffee Company burst onto the cafe scene with its barista training program for refugees, but it is now facing tough times.

As many businesses struggle with closures and changing public health guidelines, 1951 Coffee Company is no exception. The cafe’s three locations have been reopening gradually. The College Avenue location reopened May 20, and the one on Channing Way — the company’s first location — reopened July 15. The Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union location, however, is still closed, as students are not on campus.

According to co-founder and CEO Doug Hewitt, business is down by about 80%.

Initially, the cafe received a small business loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, but it only covered two months of difficulties, Hewitt said.

According to Hewitt, the process of obtaining the loan was also complicated, and the conditions were a “moving goal post.” He added that the cafe originally thought it would have to use the entire loan over an eight-week period, but after six weeks — when most of the money was spent — the PPP extended the time limit to 24 weeks.

The loan “definitely helped us at least to be able to survive,” Hewitt said. “Now, we really have to be able to rely on our customers. Our customers are the ones who will keep us going.”

The cafe and its staff have also faced particular challenges because all of its baristas are refugees.

The company’s barista staff has gone down from 25 people to three people. However, 1951 Coffee Company has been trying to help its workers and those from its training program find other jobs or file for unemployment. According to Hewitt, this can be especially difficult for people not fluent in English and those without access to internet or technology.

“We’ve really shifted from being people who just employ refugees and help them find jobs to support themselves to also providing casework so that people can still access the resources they need in trying times like this,” Hewitt said.

The cafe has also used its time recently to create a documentary short, “No Single Origin,” which follows three graduates of 1951 Coffee Company’s training program, according to Hewitt. It will be available to view in August.

It is difficult for the cafe to make decisions about reopening, Hewitt added. It is currently assessing how many employees it can bring back to work.

“During the opening and the closing and the changes in business restrictions and the flare-ups in the number of cases, we’re really trying to make sure that we ease back into it and when we offer someone a job, we know that it’s a job that we can sustain,” Hewitt said.

Contact Clara Brownstein at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @clarabrownstein.