Ethics has become a selling point and sticking point for the specialty coffee industry, with players jostling for the epithet of ‘fairest of them all’. Meanwhile, former missionary-turned-coffee roaster Ben Cosford is quietly making a visible impact up and down the supply chain.
Cosford runs Adelaide’s Soul City Roasters – its motto is “For the bean, for the people”. He trades in traceable, ethically sourced beans and sets public targets for employing people doing it tough. “It’s about being conscious of as much as you can – helping people through the whole chain,” Cosford says. “Treating them as equal humans and respecting their dignity.”
It was through his work as a minister that Cosford first began connecting with refugees and discovering their stories. It triggered him to become a conduit of positive influence in their lives – in whatever way he could.
In October of 2016, Soul City Roasters published a commitment to recruiting asylum seekers, breaking this down into hours of employment offered. The first refugee joined the team in July the following year and, “Now we’ve opened the cafe, we’ve got faster on the timeline,” says Cosford.
Currently, the business employs two women from backgrounds vastly different from Cosford’s own. Nazee fled Iran six years ago, arriving in Australia via Indonesia and Christmas Island. Now she’s learning to roast and make coffee while studying civil and structural engineering at the University of Adelaide. “Nazee struggled for two years to find any work,” Cosford explains. “She got a scholarship with the uni to study, but that cut her Centrelink payments out.” Cosford is pleased that his company is in a position to extend her “a lifeline”.
Cosford’s focus was squarely on helping refugees, until he came up against the question, “What about us Aussies?”. “I had to wrestle with that,” he admits. “I want to care for local people who have been struggling [too].
“We’ve just taken on Nicky who is long-term unemployed,” he says.
With two part-timers on the books, Soul City Roasters is already outdoing its original target of providing six to eight hours of work per week. “I’m pretty stoked, actually, about our team,” he says. “They’re caring and supportive and they get what we’re on about and look out for each other. A bit of restoration goes on, and encouragement. It helps [people] with rebuilding.”
Cosford entered the coffee game – officially – in 2015 with Salisbury City Roasters. The 1.2kg coffee roaster (installed in his garage) was dinky by commercial standards, but a huge upgrade from his original rig – a thrashed-out popcorn popper. He was selling to “mainly people I knew – friends and family and so on. But the word spread.” He rebranded as Soul City Roasters to foreground the business’s social activism message. Then, a little less than 12 months ago, Cosford was appointed the pastor at All Saints Anglican Church in Seacliff and shifted the whole operation from Hillbank to Somerton Park.
The new digs – which opened in late April – not only provided space to expand once again but are also Soul City’s first public front. “We’ve got a cafe,” Cosford says excitedly. “We’ve set it up so you get the whole experience.” Green-bean sacks hang on the walls, “Maxxy” (a capable 5-kilogram Roastmax roaster) hums away, while staff pack, label, brew and serve the roasted coffee.
The shop is also a valuable revenue stream. Every cup and bag purchased feeds directly into Soul City’s commendable business model. “I can now offer [Nazee] three days [work] a week, on average, whereas previously in my garage I could only offer four hours.”
Soul City sources raw beans from Melbourne Coffee Merchants, exclusively. Cosford is in regular contact with their buyers to learn what coffees are available and discover their backstories. These inform his roasting practice and are passed on to customers, acquainting them with the often misunderstood supply chain. “I want people to get that this is where it’s come from,” he says. “Yes, there are a lot of stages in between, but this is its origin.”
Cosford roasts one day a week, and the cafe is open for six. When he’s elsewhere, tending to the flock, he sublets Maxxy for $50 an hour to a handful of small businesses, coffee hobbyists and tinkerers. “We’re Adelaide’s first co-roasting space,” he says. It’s another way Soul City engages with the community and provides valuable professional development opportunities.
“Whether the project is big or small, you’re always working with people – it’s always about relationships in the end.”
Originally published at https://www.broadsheet.com.au/adelaide/food-and-drink/article/small-coffee-business-making-big-difference-lives-risk-australians