Social Good, Startups

Deaf Can! Coffee: 10 ways to launch a successful social enterprise in Jamaica

Deaf Can! Coffee’s Fabian Jackson, Carlyle Gabbidon, Tashi & Blake Widmer

Maybe you’ve seen them wearing their branded t-shirts serving coffee at events around Jamaica. There are now three full-time and 25 part-time baristas working with Deaf Can! Coffee, just two years since the social enterprise launched. In that short time, founders Blake and Tashi Widmer have learned quite a lot about how to make a social enterprise work in Jamaica.

Based at the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf (CCCD) on Kingston’s Cassia Park Road, Deaf Can! has grown at a time when coffee culture is thriving on the island, as has awareness of social enterprises and their potential impact in Jamaica. Imagine if every wealthy church congregation followed their example and founded their own social enterprise employing youth? I chatted with Blake at Deaf Can’s third location, inside the Toyota Coffeehouse at the dealership on Old Hope Road…

Identify a business opportunity

“I think we are offering a product and a service that nobody else is by being able to deliver a pop-up service at an event with the equipment we have. Also, we’re tapping into an underutilised labour force which is the deaf community, there are a lot of people who don’t have a job or only work part-time and when we have an event we can send out a text and say, ‘Hey we have an opportunity to work at this event this weekend and it’s gonna be such and such hours’.”

…to solve a social problem
The main problem is not the lack of hearing, but the world looking at a deaf person and just thinking that this is a person who cannot hear because that simple thought, although it is true, then trickles down into “they can’t do this, they can’t do that.” If we can change the mindset and look at a deaf person and instead see a person that is gifted and someone with “deaf gain” who does things differently, yes, but it does not mean that they do it in a lesser way – in some ways they might be able to do things better.

Our disadvantages can advantage us
When you first wrote about us in 2015 you asked Carlyle ‘Do you think you have the ability to make a better cup of coffee because being Deaf means you have to concentrate more on other senses?’. He thought about it and I remember him kind of smiling about it and saying, ‘Yeah I can!’ If you ask our team today they’ll tell you that they’re very proud to be Deaf and they have “deaf gain” whereby they have a tangible benefit. Their sense of taste, their sense of smell, their visual acumen enables them to take care of coffee throughout the whole process from roasting to grinding to brewing.

Give people a sense of ownership
The Deaf community has always felt like there is a lack of opportunity for them and they feel a strong sense of ownership in Deaf Can! Coffee. It’s their message and their brand and so we get above and beyond the commitment that an employee would give to a typical company because they really do feel that it’s a part of them, that it’s a part of who they are. When we make decisions at Deaf Can! I don’t make decisions for the business alone, but instead we sit down and discuss as a collective team.

…that’s reflected in strong branding
When we started it all we asked the guys “what do you want your business to say?” and the boys just said they want to let people know that ‘We can!’ and so we started by writing it out on a white board. I think we could spend a million dollars on a brand strategy and not come up with a better logo than the one we have. Asheena, the barista here at Toyota Coffeehouse, was traveling recently and told me that she saw a group in the airport who were wearing our shirts, it’s so easily recognized.

Ask not what people need, but what they already have
In the past, whether it be development or churches, usually what people do is to go into a community and say, ‘You don’t have this so let’s give that to you.’ But that never leads to anywhere good. The question we really want to ask is instead, ‘What do you have, what skills and local resources can you use?’ It’s a question you ask at the very start of the process.

Being a social enterprise shouldn’t mean lower quality
Because we fresh roast all our coffee in small batches, we never have coffee that’s sitting on a shelf for a very long time. We roast to order, we roast for events and I think that lends to delivering a quality product that people don’t normally experience. Also there’s a substantial difference between pre-ground coffee and fresh ground – like when you come into here at the shop and you smell it has an aroma that dissipates as soon as its ground and so we’re always fresh grinding our beans. 

…can give a more unique customer experience
When you interact with our baristas and you see them at an event, people are drawn to them. I think there’s something about how they express themselves differently with their facial expressions. For many people who’ve never interacted with a Deaf person like that before and they go and place their order and get their smile and coffee – I think that connects with people deeper and from there we get a lot of word of mouth.

Christianity has given us a strong foundation

Deaf Can! Coffee is Gospel-driven, based upon the premise that God has made everybody equally in His image. Everything we do is to get young people to appreciate their talents, their ideas and for them to have an outlet to use their creative capacity. Youth rarely have that sense of responsibility, rather it’s a feeling of entitlement where ‘I’m owed this’. The world doesn’t owe anybody anything and at Deaf Can! our youth learn that it takes work to build what they want, but also that it’s better to do it as a team. I should also add that Fabian and Carlyle and Andreen know that they are role models in the Deaf community and realise that they are being looked up to.

…to build a good network with solid partners

We’ve been blessed with great partners: Digicel Foundation and JN Foundation and USAID. Digicel gave us a grant to buy equipment for our E3 Café and then JN / USAID through their Social Enterprise Boost Initiative (SEBI) programme enabled our guys to go to class, to go to business school basically, to learn how to cost products, merchandise effectively, and upgrade our roaster. Those things have allowed us to develop more structure as a business and increase capacity. Partnerships with Café Nita, Toyota Coffeehouse and Bookophilia have given us a platform to share our talent as well. [Toyota manager Mick McGrane is currently learning sign language and barista skills from the Deaf Can! baristas]

Deaf Can! barista locations and opening hours
Café Nita (2 Phoenix Ave, Mon-Fri 8am-4pm)
Toyota Coffeehouse (93 Old Hope Road, Mon-Fri 8am-5pm)
Bookophilia (92 Hope Road, Friday and Saturday)
E3 Café (4 Cassia Park Rd, by appointment or reservation)


3 thoughts on “Deaf Can! Coffee: 10 ways to launch a successful social enterprise in Jamaica

  1. Antoinette Aiken says:

    Awesome stuff as usual Deaf Can, so happy and prudent of where you guys are going. …No more LACK….

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