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Cafe fights prejudice cup by cup

June 1, 2011 - 18:53 By Kirsty Taylor
Baristas with mental disabilities brew their way to a brighter future

In Seoul, a cafe is always within walking distance, offering coffee lovers all kinds of specialties, themes, shapes and sizes, but for the most part the baristas are your average Joe.

Sure there may be one or two barista champs or some coffee connoisseurs who brought back the world’s greatest beans from his recent trip to the Amazon.

But only the Haenuri Cafe brews to change people’s prejudices against mental disabilities.
Staff at Gwanghwamun’s Haenuri Cafe serve customers. (The Korea Herald)

Located in an alleyway near Gwanghwamun, the Haenuri Cafe, which means “the sun shines all over the world,” serves the freshest fruit juices and the richest coffee from the finest beans.

But the people behind the cafe’s counter are not your everyday baristas. They are young adults with mental disabilities that can tamp, pull, steam and blend like the best of them.

The cafe, no larger than a van, does not employ these youths to provide them with jobs, but rather to train them for the future.

Most of the staff here will train at the cafe for three months until they are ready to move on to long-term opportunities including jobs at restaurant chains such as Outback Steakhouse, VIPS and Mad for Garlic.

Run by the Seongdong Rehabilitation Center, the Haenuri Cafe at Gwanghwamun is one of three take-out style coffee shops that have helped some 40 mentally disabled young adults find employment, since 2004.

It is not a coincidence that the Cafe is located near the city’s business-orientated Gwanghwamun.

According to Park Bong-su, facilities director of the cafe, they chose that location to reach as many people as they can who have not had much exposure to those with disabilities.

The cafe’s staff hope to change the prejudice that some people have towards disabled young adults.

“Before we opened, someone even went so far as to ask us to close off our food assembly process,” said Park.

Those with disabilities are typically stereotyped as unsanitary and some assumed the quality of food that they make would be inferior compared to others.

But that only spurred on the Haenuri Cafe to seek to change such attitudes.

Park’s goal was to make the food so delicious and fresh that those preparing and serving the food being disabled would come as an afterthought to customers.

And the cafe is achieving its goal.

Haenuri has many regulars because the ingredients are fresh, the process is sanitary and the price is cheap, according to Park.

“We have customers coming in and saying that this is perfectly sanitary and that our cafe tastes better than other places they have been too, they are now regulars,” said Park.

“The coffee quality is quite good, I didn’t expect that much but it turned out well made,” said a 27-year-old customer.

And other companies are quite receptive to the idea of hiring mentally disabled people, according to Park.

It starts with the extreme pride these youths take in their work.

“They get a sense of confidence when they don the uniform and they have a very strong sense of drive and will for their work,” said Park.

“Unlike regular kids, they do everything you tell them to, they listen to you, they’re kind and they do not have any complaints,” said Chun Eung-soong, who is a volunteer at the cafe.

“They are physically able to endure the long periods of being on their feet, and although they end up doing different tasks as those they were taught at the cafe, they are able to adjust quite quickly at their new job,” Park said.

Those who have been through the program and those who have not been through the program are certainly different. They (Haenuri Cafe staff) adjust really well, and the percentage in which they quit their jobs is much lower,” said Lee Jeong-ran, manager of the Haenuri Cafes.

And the staff themselves much prefer to be busy than calm.

“I like it when I get a lot of customers, because when it is slow it gets boring,” said Kang Ki-tae, a 21-year-old who works at the Haenuri Cafe in Seong-dong.

“In the beginning I was a little unfamiliar with customers, but as I worked here I was able to become friendlier with them.”

“In the future I want to go out and get my own job,” he said.

But these young adults do not get any shortcuts when it comes to employment.

According to Park, they go through the same hiring process as everyone else from submitting their application, sitting in for an interview, and even taking a practical test.

So how did Park and his team at the rehabilitation center come up with the idea?

According to Park, initially all of the occupational training at the center was assembly and packaging. But once the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, many mentally disabled were unable to find jobs or pushed out of employment from the flooding job market.

So Park decided that something in the service industry would be appropriate, but something without the large startup costs of a conventional cafe.

That is how the first Haenuri Cafe was opened in the Seong-dong district office in 2004. Park takes pride in the belief that Haenuri Cafe started the take-out coffee shop revolution.

One of the first girls to take part in the program, initially had a difficult time adjusting, but now successfully holds a restaurant job.

But the cafe’s sun did not stop shining there; the program has also touched the lives of her parents.

“The mother of that same girl came up with the dream that she would run a cafe with her daughter someday so she volunteered with us at Haenuri, to learn how to run a cafe,” said Park.

And according to Park, there are limitations to what the cafe can do.

The menu at Haenuri is simple, and there is a reason behind that.

“With mentally disabled people, they have a hard time if there is too much to do,” he said.

The employees also have difficulty with mathematical reasoning.

“They have a hard time with money management, so there have been times when we sell and sell, only to be left with nothing at the end of the day.”

And instead of making multiple orders in one batch, the employees are trained to do one drink at a time, to avoid confusion.

“We hope that as people come in and out of the buildings, they see what we are doing and that they may want to see more of our coffee shops throughout the country. That to us is a bigger goal than raising profits,” said Park.

By Robert Lee (

Haenuri Cafe

1st floor, Community Chest of Korea
1-17 Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul