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Stevo Kuhn – making coffee approachable

For Stevo Kuhn, drinking coff ee should be a sensory experience, but one that is accessible – without any traces of pretension. Here he talks about his coffee journey, the work-life balance, and how business can be a tool for positive change…

In essence, the owner of urban Brew coffee bar in Bloemfontein is an educator. But for Stevo, educating refers to training baristas. According to him, he always used to say that he would open a coffee shop when he was “old and 40”. Now, several years earlier than planned, the 32 year old has opened his first coffee bar in Jack and Jill Food Co in the Loch Logan Waterfront in Bloemfontein. For Stevo, having his own coffee bar has helped him “to innovate and, ultimately, train more baristas”.

The leitmotif which runs through Stevo’s conversation is training and educating, which explains his initial career choice – a primary school teacher. After four years of teaching, he decided that this particular brand of teaching was not his cup of coffee after all. “Things just seemed to fall into place afterwards, which led to doors opening, and me eventually finding my niche – training baristas.” He says training baristas boils down to “building people up, because if we grow, we’re pushing those around us to grow too”.

Being part of a coffee community

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Stevo is qualified as a Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) affiliated trainer, of whom there are fewer than ten in South Africa. The SCA represents thousands of coffee professionals, from producers to baristas, all over the world. Stevo works with national and international brands to train their baristas.

He is a great believer in the benefits of baristas participating in competitions. “Taking part in competitions helped me hone my craft as a barista. Competitions also opened up a greater coffee community to me. I’ve built up incredible connections and made valuable contacts through competitions.”

More to life than coffee

Stevo admits that he has wanted to leave Bloemfontein for most of his life. “But, in 2018 in Johannesburg, I quickly learnt that the big city was not everything.” “Now,” he adds, “I travel for a week a month and then I come home to my family. Something else Johannesburg taught me is that I would work all the time – I’m a workaholic. In Bloemfontein, I play my music at church, spend my days at my coffee bar, and spend time with my wife, Elri, and my two young children.” He muses that it is also good for his career to rest and “experience different things at a sensory level – such as food, wine and chocolate”.

Pay baristas a living wage

Although coffee is a multi-sensory experience for Stevo, his reaction to the poor pay most baristas receive is cerebral. This soft spoken man becomes animated when he speaks about the fact that not only baristas, but people in general, should be paid a living wage. “We should be asking, ‘What do we pay people?’ When I train baristas, I actually suggest that when they go back to their workplaces they should demand a better salary. Further, it should be about paying coffee farmers a living wage to ensure that the entire supply chain is sustainable.” For Stevo it boils down to “being openhanded. People should not have to immigrate to Australia to earn a decent salary. We must fight now for a living wage in South Africa.” He concedes that he might not necessarily see change in his lifetime, but “we should do it for our children”.

An all-round mensch

The golden thread that runs through Stevo’s conversation is a strong sense of doing what is right and ethical – an innate mensch-ness. Interweaved with this is the recurring theme of exactly how important people and healthy relationships are to him. Here Stevo again mentions his wife, who is “a strength” to him, the people he trains as baristas, the diverse group of baristas he hires “for character”, his treasured friends and connections in the coffee industry, and his close group of friends. “I draw my energy from people. Having great relationships is more important to me than having six digits in my bank account.”

Text: MARGARET LINSTRÖM. Photograph: SUPPLIED

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