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Red Band Academy Partners with Sonder Café

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

The idea behind Sonder Cafe was never to create another run-of-the-mill coffee shop. Let’s be honest, that’s the last thing Cape Town needs. What has always mattered to us is creating a community-based space that brings people together.

In this fractured period in global history, when a virus has kept so many of us apart and uncertainty around the future remains rife, we believe there is a strong need for spaces that encourage connection and unity.

Since opening, we’ve watched our humble cafe slowly turn into just that. We’ve seen housemates gather together to drink coffee and eat croissants in the morning, strangers play chess over cappuccinos, lovers on lunch dates, besties playing board games and lone wolves tucking into a toastie and a good novel.

We strongly feel, especially in South Africa, that businesses, small and large, need to be working to uplift the community.

Hence, why we chose to partner up with The Red Band Academy.

Red Band, who?

Red Band is a barista training academy founded by Jo and Ryan Le Roux, and Shaun Aupias, that aims to tackle youth unemployment by training up candidates with the skills needed to serve in the professional coffee industry.

Through coffee, Red Band works to empower, educate and improve the lives of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Having grown up together in the Eastern Cape, Chase, Ryan and Jo got together and decided to collaborate Red Band with Sonder Cafe.

Through Red Band’s help we were able to source our amazing barista Thembinkosi, otherwise known as TK, who trained up through the Red Band program and has quickly become an integral part of the Sonder family.

To learn more about the story behind Red Band, we sat down with the founder’s, Ryan and Jessica on their recent trip to Cape Town.

Tell us a bit more about how Red Band started...

Ryan: Jo and I were living overseas but wanted to come back to South Africa to try and make a difference. The only reason I'm in the position I'm in is because of the history of South Africa. There are so many people my age without jobs who don't have the privilege that I grew up with, so it stemmed from that. I started looking for cool ways to help someone change their mindset and get them a cool job that wasn't a domestic worker or gardener. And coffee is one of those things. A barista really sets the tone of a place. And even though it's an entry level position, it’s got more identity to it.

Jessica: We were also very aware that you can give somebody an opportunity and it can actually be the worst thing you do, because they haven't got the resources to take up the opportunity and run with it. So, that was something we learned along the way as well. Living in South Africa you get quite desensitized to the level of poverty that people are born into. I think a big part of our approach is to try and make people ready to receive this new opportunity and support them.

So, when and where did the first academy open?

Ryan: We opened our first Academy in PE and that went well for the first year, and then we started getting interest from other people in other cities who heard about what we were doing. Now we have six barista academies, five in South Africa , one in Uganda, and all of those started off of the back of relationships with other people, and partnerships.

How do you recruit people to join the academy?

Ryan: Word of mouth happened quite quickly as soon as people start getting jobs. In order to get into the academy, you need to complete the phase one course. So, we have a lot more people there. Before COVID, we were getting 30 people in a class every two weeks and then we’d only take 10 on our barista course. The interviewing process is quite strict. We interview around 40 to 50 people. I think that's one of the reasons we've been quite successful in our placements is because we've filtered them through the phase one.

Jessica: And who that person is as an individual is so important.

Ryan: And that they’re ready for the opportunity. As you can see, you can have all the equipment but if you haven't got the right work ethic and are arriving on time, with a good attitude than it doesn’t matter what skills you have.

Jessica: Through the interview process, you start to see where people have got something that really is interesting.

So, in terms of expansion, how did you evolve from these academies to now opening your own coffee bars?

Ryan: We started the academy in 2014 which focused solely on skills development. We were just doing that until 2018. A lot of our baristas were going to famous brands like Seattle, but we found there were some that wanted to start their own projects. So, we came up with the idea and piloted it in 2018, at NMU with a Red Band coffee bar which we branded ourselves, and then stuck two of our baristas in there. And so, from 2018 is when the Red Band coffee bars came about.

We’ve found what hasn't worked is giving someone all the equipment and financing them, and then walking away from them. Their fingers go in the till and they don’t know how to manage their money, they don’t do any research and development on their drinks. And, then you find in 6 months they’ve sold all the equipment.

Jessica: You have to be responsible for the opportunity you give because it can sometimes do more harm than good.

Ryan: The process starts with barista training and then they can start earning bonuses every day from the number of coffees they sell, and then they move up to become a manager, and eventually can become a share owner where they buy into the Red Band franchise.

Amazing! And tell us a bit about your collaboration with Sonder Café?

Ryan: Well, we obviously don’t have the capital to start a brand from scratch, but there's so many other people that you can partner up with. Right now each of our partnerships looks different. Sonder café is our first flagship one. For us it’s about creating a space within a space that doesn't take over the entire story. I think that's what captured our imagination here. With Sonder it’s not about our brand, it's about the story.

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