Coffee story with a social twist

18 April 2019 | Community
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The Foreword Coffee team at their CSC outlet during one of their monthly company meetings (Photo: Lim Wei Jie)

Every cup of coffee can be like a foreword, enticing one to delve into its narrative. With this idea brewing in his mind, NUS Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) alumnus Mr Lim Wei Jie built his social enterprise, establishing Foreword Coffee — which aims to empower people with special needs through training and employment — in 2017 during his 4th year in NUS. The first cup was served at the outlet in the College of Alice & Peter Tan which later moved to Civil Service College, followed by another at the Ng Teng Fong Centre for Healthcare Innovation. 

“The foreword is a short introduction to a book but it is never a complete representation of it. We implore our guests and customers to explore the story beneath the cover,” said Mr Lim who is also an alumnus of the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre (CTPCLC) at NUS. He added that the name is also a play on the word “forward” and a reminder to “always be forward looking and innovative in what we do”.

Established in 2017 in Mr Lim’s fourth year in NUS, Foreword Coffee supports three different causes — coffee producers in the Asian region, people with special needs, and sustainable coffee consumption. Besides actively hiring people with special needs, they import green coffee beans directly from Asian producers and roast them locally, promote a plastic-free environment, encourage customers to bring their own cups and conduct public workshops on topics ranging from coffee knowledge to adapting workflow and training for differently-abled people. An initiative called “Borrow a Cup” urges customers working in the same building as their outlet to use less disposable cups. Even coffee grounds are not wasted but given to gardening hobbyists for turning into composts.

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Mr Lim doing a sharing at Sonder Social’s inaugural pop-up bazaar for a socially conscious shopping experience (Photo: Lim Wei Jie)

The idea for the enterprise was sparked by a stint at the NUS Student Exchange Programme (SEP) in Amsterdam where Mr Lim discovered specialty coffee and took a barista course, as well as his personal experiences with people with special needs.

“I have friends with siblings with special needs, and friends who interned with Pathlight School and shared with me how the youth, upon graduation, do not get enough opportunities in life even though they are talented in their own ways. That got me thinking if there was anything I could do to help create better awareness for persons with special needs,” he shared.

Building an establishment that hires people with special needs was not the simplest of tasks. “Initially we wanted to train and place persons with special needs through our barista course. We were too new a company and there were no sign-ups even though we were supported by SG Enable's training grant. Instead of training and placing, we began to do direct hiring and then train on the job. We hired one deaf person, one person with autism, and tried a work attachment with two students from Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore School. Through this, we gained experience working with differently-abled persons and established ourselves as a social enterprise for persons with special needs,” he elaborated.

We feel that persons with special needs have been trying to fit into our society for the longest time and we want to take this chance to allow customers to step into the world of our differently-abled team; the customer journey from cashier to receiving their drink is a learning experience itself.

The company now employs 12 differently-abled persons, and offers regular internships and attachments to students from various special education schools. While they do have a few detractors, feedback from customers have been mostly positive.

“They recognise that we hire persons with disabilities and therefore are more forgiving in terms of speed of service, but they still expect good coffee to be served. I think we have met their expectations because we have returning customers who enjoy the interaction with our team of baristas and service crew,” he shared.

Foreword Coffee avoids putting up obvious signage indicating the special needs of their staff. “We feel that persons with special needs have been trying to fit into our society for the longest time and we want to take this chance to allow customers to step into the world of our differently-abled team; the customer journey from cashier to receiving their drink is a learning experience itself,” said Mr Lim.

It has been a rewarding two years. He witnessed how his people have grown from being afraid of using the espresso machine (because it is hot) to creating latte art. He has also seen how they progressed from not knowing sign language to teaching others how to finger spell.

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The Foreword Coffee team with their booth at Festival for Good 2018 (Photo: Lim Wei Jie)

Mr Lim is currently taking the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualification (WSQ) Advanced Certificate for Training and Assessment, in the hopes of working towards making Foreword Coffee an Approved Training Organization that can conduct WSQ certified courses for people with special needs. The company is expanding to their third outlet in May and will soon be rolling out their “Barista Confidence Training for PWDs in Cafes” supported by the SG Enable Training Grant.

“We will strengthen our internal training courses and upgrade the skills of our people. We wish to assist other F&B owners to tap on the potential of differently-abled persons in their work places. Together with my partner, we will continue to grow the company by opening more outlets and also expand our social impact by training and placing persons with disabilities into regular cafes,” he said.