Project Silent Barista:

One oat drink company's quest to train a new and inclusive class of Chinese baristas

As a company that makes oat drinks that go happily with coffee, we have a close relationship with the barista community. And we thought that maybe the coffee industry could lead the way in creating more job opportunities for those often left out of the labor market. So we came up with the Silent Barista initiative in Shanghai – providing officially-certified barista training and job opportunities to the deaf community. Check out the full story below.

This story starts with a pretty troubling fact…

Silent Barista - Rejection

On average, only one in three people with a disability are employed worldwide. Barriers to education along with discrimination from employers leave them disadvantaged in the job market, especially in pandemic-times.

While over 20 million deaf and hard of hearing people live in China, a large number are left out of the labour market. That’s a serious amount of potential going to waste. So in 2020 Oatly set up an initiative that would work for everyone: Silent barista training with the Unibrown Cafe in Shanghai. 

Silent barista shanghai skyline
Silent Barista - Coffee Shop

Basically, this project trains people who are deaf and hard of hearing to become professionally certified baristas, while breaking down some of the stigmas surrounding deafness and helping to solve a major shortage of baristas in China—all at the same time. Three birds, one oat…or, something like that. 

Successful graduates of the course receive SCA (Speciality Coffee Association) certification as well as help finding the right job through Oatly’s barista network.

Silernt Barista - Apply
Silent Barista - Barista sign language

The program kicked off in 2020 with 34 participants. So how did it go? Well, first came the realization that universal signs to describe the stages of coffee-making didn’t really exist. So along the way, Oatly got to work with some experts to help develop a new local Barista Sign Language Dictionary for the community. 

The students have been super successful, with almost 100% graduating as certified baristas (and by “almost” we mean 60 out of 62, which is “definitely” awesome).

Silent Barista - Scratch
Silent Barista - Practice

So far, 62 trainees from all over China have taken part in the Silent Barista course, where their skills were honed and tested through everything from workshops to silent latte art competitions, before taking their final exam.

Providing a major boost to the coffee-community’s talent pool, Silent Barista graduates have found jobs with businesses including local coffee shops, Oatly and Ikea.

Silent Barista - Degree
Silent Barista - Getting Work

A third of these incredible silent baristas are now permanently employed, five are running their own silent coffee shop businesses, and the rest have part-time barista jobs. Amazing, right?

We believe this initiative gives the deaf and hard of hearing the possibility of stable employment as well as a career path and a network within the coffee industry—all while welcoming more members into the ever-growing barista community. And we are really proud to say that the Silent Barista program received a public welfare award in January 2021.

Silent Barista - Public Welfare Award
Silent Barista - Watch this space

Yeah, things are off to a really great start, but we are still learning and working hard to keep building this awesome program. By the end of 2021, we will be expanding to train around 100 new silent baristas and it looks like this important training will likely be offered in other parts of China in the near future. Check back here for updates!

Illustrations courtesy of Cat Sims.