Food & Drink | THE HIGH GROUNDS

Social Good Roasters: Balancing coffee and community

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

At first glance, Social Good Roasters looks like any other third-wave coffee shop in Japan. Tucked away on a side street in Tokyo’s Kanda neighborhood, the space is a chic, minimalist affair in concrete, wood and shades of gray, with plenty of light streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

A bright red, cheeky-looking shoebill — the Social Good Roasters’ logo — greets visitors at the door. It’s quiet inside: The music is muted, and the main noise is the gentle rasp of green coffee beans being sorted by the half-dozen people seated around a central table.

Given the location, atmosphere and even industry, it might surprise first-time visitors to learn that Social Good Roasters is a social welfare organization that specifically employs people with disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism and teaches them everything from how to sort unroasted coffee beans to the process of brewing and roasting.

According to Nobuyuki Takaishi, a director at Social Good Roasters’ parent company, Beans, Social Good Roasters is a Type B shūrōkeizokushien (support for continuous employment) company. Boiled down, it means that the employees — Takaishi refers to them as “members” — aren’t employed on long-term contracts and, among other things, have more flexibility in their shifts and breaks.

Right now Social Good Roasters employs 10 members, mainly in their 20s and 30s, who are supported by six additional staff. Members’ salaries start at ¥300 per hour, double the average hourly wage of other Type B companies. Tasks vary based on individual interests and comfort levels: Members who want to learn how to roast coffee beans can do so, first on a small practice roaster and later on the shop’s large black-and-gold Giesen, but it’s not a problem if all they want to do is sort coffee beans or prepare packaging for individual drip packs.

“It’s natural for people to want to work in a place they like,” says Takumi Sakano, a Beans company representative. He pulls out his phone and flips through a few photos of other Type B workplaces. Typically, they’re small and old and feel a bit like run-down classrooms or community centers — the opposite of Social Good Roasters’ welcoming vibe.

According to the NPO Center for Disability Employment Creation, there are over 13,500 Type B employment spaces nationwide. However, Sakano estimates that there are only 10 to 20 “cool” social welfare workplaces in Japan, many in difficult-to-reach areas outside city centers.

“Compared to other countries, people with disabilities in Japan have much less employment choice,” says Sakano. “So the first thing we wanted to do was create jobs and a workplace that would make people think, ‘I want to work here, I want to try this.'”

Social Good Roasters takes its coffee as seriously as its social mission. Its specialty is the eponymous “Social Good Roasters Blend,” a medium roast that combines beans from Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Burundi.

Since Kanda is largely a business district, the goal was to craft a balanced brew that would be easy for people to drink on a daily basis. On first sip it’s the perfect level of sweetness and body, a coffee to suit any mood or situation.

Although the space only opened in July, Social Good Roasters’ dedication to quality is already producing results: Just last month, a member of the shop’s supervising staff won a medal at the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan (SCAJ) Roast Masters Team Challenge 2018.

“There’s an impression that goods made by people with disabilities are low-quality,” Sakano says.

Social Good Roasters is working to change that perception by participating in national and local events such as the Welfare Festival held every October in Chiyoda Ward. This year the organization plans to sell cups of coffee and handmade single-serve drip packs of its signature blend.

With the day’s shift winding down, members sorting beans slowly pack away their tools and take off their hygiene masks. As they sit around the table, drinking a cup of coffee and making quiet conversation with other staff, a sense of accomplishment effuses the shop space.

“People who like people (work in) coffee,” Sakano asserts. Looking at the smiles on everyone’s faces, it’s clear he’s found the happy balance between coffee and community.

Landpool Kanda Terrace 2F, Kanda-Nishikicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 101-0054; 03-6811-0895; sgroasters.jp; open Mon.-Fri. 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; closed Sat., Sun.; coffee from ¥350; nearest station Ogawamachi