For the past three months, self-taught barista Sbusiso Nkolothi has been whipping up cappuccinos and lattes while simultaneously winning the hearts of all those who meet him at his Ballito coffee shop. We got to know the man behind the counter of the Coffee Lab at the Lifestyle Centre.
People, personality and a positive attitude are the the things that 33-year-old Sbu says have gotten him to where he is today … and he’s determined to help others find the same success.
Life hasn’t been easy for the Zimbabwe-born barista, who ended up living on the streets of Durban after moving to South Africa in 2010. Despite the adversities he’s faced though, Sbu has managed to use every opportunity afforded to him over the past 11 years, in pursuit of his dream of owning his own coffee shop.
Sbu grew up in Victoria Falls and was exposed to the hospitality and tourism industry from a young age. He worked as a golf caddy and waiter and ‘hustled’ curios in his youth. When he heard about the World Cup, he decided to take a chance and come to South Africa. But things didn’t turn out as planned. “That’s how life goes. Sometimes you make plans and they don’t work out. I ended up in Durban, knowing no one and with nothing. I had two choices – I could go home with nothing, or make it work here.”
Sbu spent five, hard months living on the streets, but says he learnt so much about himself and others during this time. “Most people who on the streets have bigger hearts than you realise. They aren’t all bad people. Life and situations have led to them being where they are and doing things they don’t want to in order to survive. It’s easy to point fingers until you’re in that same position,” he says.
When he finally landed a job at a takeaway spot called Gallito’s, Sbu’s life finally started to turn around. “I had been so desperate and was grateful to wake up and have a purpose every day.” Within weeks he earned the owner’s trust and was given a key to open up the restaurant. “I was living in a shelter at the time and kept getting sick because it was so dirty, so I started living in the restaurant without anyone knowing.”
Doors started to open for him and when Sbu landed a job as a runner at well-known Durban North restaurant, Mamma Lucianas, his life started improving. “I had friends and a community. Marco, the owner, helped me change my life by pushing me to do better and building me up.”
Sbu was soon made barman and it was then that he started discovering more about coffee. He learnt how to use the machine and read books about coffee. It was also here that Sbu met chef Ray Friedman. “Ray spent time teaching me and, everything I know about food, I learned from him.”
Sbu was offered a barista and management position at The Sett, a shared workspace in Umhlanga, by owner Travis Gale. Here, he says, he was given access to a computer and discovered Youtube. “That was a game-changer for me. I watched videos about and taught myself to be a barista.. I realised that coffee is about building community and connecting with people.” When The Sett closed, Sbu joined the Private Property team as their in-house barista. Then Covid hit and he was retrenched.
“Last year was actually really good for me. It brought me opportunities like never before. I started working on my real dream – of opening my own coffee shop and simultaneously offering barista training to people who need it the most. The guys who haven’t finished school and have no opportunities lined up. I am passionate about helping others grow now.
A friend put Sbu’s photograph on Facebook offering his barista services and his phone rang off the hook! Despite being offered tons of jobs though, Sbu was determined to start his own brand. Then he got a call from Murray Loader at the Lifestyle Centre. The next day he got another call from artists Jane Digby. The team were launching a pop-up art gallery at the Lifestyle Centre and were looking for a someone run a coffee shop. “From the moment I met Jane I knew this was right for me. Her passion is contagious. It was the perfect space, the perfect time and the perfect person. She is a believer and she helped me to set up the Coffee Lab. I don’t think I could ever thank her enough.”
That was three months ago and Sbu and his Coffee Lab have grown from strength to strength. Although the Gallery has now closed, Coffee Lab will remain in place and become a part of The Studios, a space that will incorporate an eclectic mix of bespoke stores and personalised shopping areas.
“I am where I am because of the people who have come into my life. So many people have impacted me and given me opportunities and believed in me. The Gallery was amazing for me and gave me such great exposure. Things are changing now, but I’m very excited and I know it’s going to be good fun!”
Text: Leah Shone
Photograph: Mary-Ann Palmer