From premium event space to a working field hospital
Department of Coffee in Khayelitsha
Spreading the joys of java: Cape Town’s first township-based artisan coffee shop
Cape Town may have seen a major surge in coffee culture of late, but, for the most part, interest in the finer points of this full-bodied brew has largely only percolated through the CBD’s trendy in-crowd. That is, until three young men from the townships committed to taking it to the people.
Officially launched on 2 July 2012, the Department of Coffee (DOC), the first artisan coffee house to sit amidst the corrugated iron shacks, dusty roads and informal barber shops of Khayelitsha, is the brainchild of Wongama Baleni, Vusumzi Mamile and Vuyile Msaku, a trio with enough passion, ambition and courage to defy convention and follow their dreams.
Keen businessmen at heart, Wongama and Vusumzi conceived the first inkling of the idea for the coffee shop back in 2010 while attending a community-based meditation and life skills programme that encouraged them to open up about long-term goals and aspirations.
Once they’d conveyed their burning desire to establish their own spot to the programme co-founder, Murray Ingram, he put them in touch with the Ministry of Service Delivery, a commendable local job creation organisation that agreed to loan funds for the start-up of DOC.
What ensued was over two years spent fine-tuning the concept, seeking out a suitable space, developing the brand, designing logos, signage, uniforms and fittings, and fighting the incessant anxiety that comes with stepping on virgin ground. And the result? A polished, professional over-the-counter espresso bar in the heart of Khayelitsha.
And now, set up and armed with state-of-the-art machines and a mean menu, and with Vuyile, a former barista, on board, these industrious 20-somethings have turned their attention to stripping the drink of its luxury associations and changing locals’ concept of coffee.
“Before us, there was no coffee culture here; people have this idea that cappuccinos are expensive,” explains Wongama, who was a fireman before he and the others quit their jobs to take on this challenge. “So, we’re trying to show them that it can be affordable and accessible to all.”
And with prices that are shockingly low for the quality of their creations, they’re doing so quite successfully. Alongside filter coffee for R6.50, the eye-catching café – which is located in prime position right next to the pulsing Khayelitsha train station – serves up a medley of espresso-based options, including steaming lattes, foamy cappuccinos, macchiatos, chococinos and iced ‘freezeeccinos’, none of which exceed R10. What’s more, each cuppa is made from their own brand of Arabica-Italian coffee beans – roasted locally especially for DOC – and boasts beautiful, often quirky, instances of latte art (barista Vuyile has taught the others to pour faces, angels, rosettas, bears and more).
In addition to these brewed beverages, the young co-owners, who are now all affirmed java junkies, also serve tea, hot chocolate, cool drinks and freshly squeezed juice (think orange, guava and a cocktail option), and sell an assortment of tasty flavoured muffins – blueberry, bran, ginger and double chocolate, for instance – for a mere R2.50 (a welcome change to the R20 you’ll pay in city centre bakeries).
And they don’t only cater to those who come to the café. Aside from servicing customers keen to linger at the orange umbrella-shaded tables just outside (there’s no inside seating), the trio also delivers, at no extra charge, to a number of venues nearby, including the adjacent mall and the Khayelitsha court and hospital.
“The Department of Coffee supplies the Department of Justice and the Department of Health,” Wongama says in jest, poking fun at the name of the shop, which was chosen, after much banter and brainstorming, because it has such a powerful presence.
But the founders’ objectives don’t start and end with coffee. As the three all hail from Khayelitsha originally, and hence have witnessed first hand that, as they sum up, “things aren’t right around here”, they also established the first-class café to help boost economic and social development, shatter class and cultural barriers and establish the township as an integral (and visit-worthy) part of the city.
“Another goal of ours is to pick up the economy and make positive changes here,” explains Wongama, by far the chattiest member of the team. “We want to break down the wall between Khayelitsha and Cape Town.”
In this way, these pioneering businessmen have become a major source of inspiration to other members of their impoverished community, standing as a prominent symbol of hope and future potential. With several more artisan coffee shops in the pipeline – an expansion that will create jobs for many – Wongama, Vusumzi and Vuyile are brewing up new unprecedented prospects for the Mother City, one world-class cuppa at a time.
Tip: As a large part of their focus is social and community development, the Department of Coffee runs a ‘muffin project’ that invites customers to donate muffins (at only R2.50 each), which are then taken to crèches and children’s homes for hungry little ones to enjoy.
Note: In an effort to bring people in from the city centre, DOC runs regular open days, animated events that are part party, part open-air market. Metrorail often provides exclusive train transport specifically for the occasion; open day dates are advertised on the Department of Coffee Facebook page.
The Bill: As noted, the coffee bar’s prices are almost unparalleled. A filter coffee goes for R6.50, hot chocolate and juices cost R7, a double espresso shot is R7.50, a cappuccino or latte will set you back only R8.50, and iced coffee and chococinos ring in at a recession-friendly R10.
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday: 5am – 6pm; Saturday: 7am – 3pm
VPUU Building | Corner of Ntlazane Road and Khwezi Crescent | Llitha Park | Khayelitsha | Cape Town |Wongama: +27 (0) 78 086 0093; Vusumzi: +27 (0) 73 300 9519; Vuyile: +27 (0) 78 316 2918
Find out more about the best flat white in Simon’s Town at Kukoma.
Eager to find out more about other (more conventional) java hotspots in the Mother City? Have a look at our pick of some of the top coffee shops and roasteries in Cape Town.
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