Bar Unity: How bartending is helping a Cape Town community

14 October, 2022

Kurt Schlechter and Leah van Deventer's community-based bartender training course is helping to get people back into employment while raising awareness of hospitality. Schlechter tells us how it works.

Keenan Williams has an infectious smile and an easy manner around people, which makes him perfect for hospitality. He drove a taxi for a long while but it became too dangerous. He then had a job in retail, which he lost in Covid. He has to support his wife and four kids, one of whom is a six-month-old baby he found abandoned on the street. Keenan has a heart of gold and has put all his energy into our training course, so we really want him to succeed. We want them all to succeed.  

That course is Bar Unity, a community-based bartender training programme. It was created out of necessity – unemployment is at an all-time high in South Africa and bars need bartenders. It should be a simple equation, but the big challenge is to make the two ends meet.  

Headed up by drinks writer Leah van Deventer and myself, Bar Unity aims to train 12 unemployed people at a time and find them employment. Creating a sustainable programme that leads to employment is, of course, the main aim, but we are aware that not all of our students will master the skills, knowledge and service standards at the same rate.

So, our focus is wider than just training bartenders. Our goal is to also create awareness around hospitality and drive passion for what we do, which will one day lead to bar-industry entrepreneurship.  

Community focus

The benefit of focusing on one community is being able to work with organisations and stakeholders that already work hard to create better lives for their neighbours. You get to know the people in the community and they, in turn, help you identify those who really want to change their standard of living.

Dawn Leedenberg, who runs an NGO that helps people with criminal records find employment, and Ester Julius, who manages a toy library at KenFac community centre for underprivileged families, have been essential to our recruitment. Kensington – the community we have targeted – has introduced us to some amazing individuals eager to learn and stay the course of the full-month training programme.  

At the time of writing, we are in the third week of training and we still have full attendance – that’s a testament to the value of community. Collaborating as we have also really helps with the cost of transport – often a barrier to these initiatives.  

The Kensington suburb is just outside Cape Town city off the N1 highway, forming part of the northern suburbs of Cape Town with Maitland and Factreton. Despite significant gains in areas of social welfare and essential services, a majority of South African communities are still impacted by our country’s Apartheid past. There are many micro-scale challenges for each community as our government struggles with transformation.  

As with most of us, Covid has had a negative impact on our students’ lives. We’ve heard the story of Keenan, but each of our students has their own tale. Nicole Malgas and Nokuzola Mathimba are two more of our students who lost their jobs. Nicole was working in the retail industry and was made redundant within a week of the outbreak. Living with her family and not being able to contribute has been tough. So it’s wonderful to watch her energy as she confidently makes a Sidecar; she has some of the best practical skills in the class. We focus heavily on practical skills – getting your jigger and pouring style right is a great confidence booster and shows the guest their drink is in safe hands.  

Valuable skills

Zola is one of the quieter students. She moved from the Eastern Cape to study a degree in environmental health; she finished her community service and degree a year ago and has been looking for a job as a health inspector, but cannot find work. She is super smart, scoring 100% on her theory exam, and will use bartending to make ends meet. For some of our students, bartending will not be their life, but if it helps them get on the employment ladder and puts money in their pockets before they start their careers, that’s just as valuable.  

There are a lot people behind the scenes making the Bar Unity programme happen: the managers and bartenders who help with training at my bar, Cause Effect Cocktail Kitchen; our sponsors Christelle Reade-Jahn from South African Brandy Foundation and Carlo Wiehahn from Peninsula Beverages with Schweppes Premium Spirits; and our good friend and talented bartender Owen O’Reilly from Sip Exclusive, who spent an evening with our trainees showing them the creative side of cocktails.  

The idea behind Bar Unity is not only to make a difference here in Cape Town but to create a blueprint that can be used by others in hospitality to uplift their own communities – wherever they are in the world.     

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