Coffee for misfits: Hong Kong cafe hires and pushes troubled youth to dream big
Cafe Heato owner draws from his own troubled past and hires marginalised people to motivate and inspire them
As a student, Lam Ka-lun didn’t have an affinity for the books, preferring instead to play video games, smoke and pick fights. He never imagined he would become a barista, but he was set on the path one day after school when he swung by Cafe Heato in Tuen Mun where his friend worked.
Lam convinced his friend to let him try making coffee, even though he had zero experience.
“I had no goals, there was nothing I really wanted to go after, but I was bored and I wanted a challenge,” he said.
“I’d never even had coffee before, but I found it really interesting.”
Although the first cup of coffee Lam made was far from saleable, he kept coming back to the cafe to try his hand at making more.
He hogged the coffee machine so often that the shop owner gave up trying to convince him otherwise, and ended up hiring him for his persistence.
“It was fun, so I continued to do it,” Lam said.
“I worked up from being just the kid who had thick skin to becoming the store manager.
“I never thought I’d be here working overtime for six hours. I feel at home here. My boss takes the view that if things break, we can buy new stuff. If we lose money, we can make more, but nothing is more important than the people.”
Now 17, Lam has worked at Cafe Heato for over a year. His story is just one of many among the staff members.
The shop’s mission is to hire and help young people who have been marginalised by society.
Owner Amen Chan Hoi-yuen, 28, started the cafe to “give opportunities to those who need it”.
Having found school extremely difficult due to reading disorders and feeling left behind by society, he ended up spending all his time picking fights around Tuen Mun.
Over time, he matured and realised that all he needed was a little help back then. So Cafe Heato was born in 2014 to give people like his younger self a chance to “jump out of this frame of mind”.
“This is a platform for them to prove to themselves they’re capable, to train themselves. They need to learn to socialise, communicate and build a connection with people,” Chan said.
“What young people need the most these days isn’t money because they’ll never earn enough to buy property. What they need is confidence, someone to put trust in them. They need to be challenged and motivated.”
Chan mostly hires staff from the less affluent parts of Hong Kong, including Tuen Mun, Tin Shui Wai and Yuen Long. During recruitment, he simply asks them about their dreams, motivations and stories, rather than a resume with qualifications.
“I’ve hired people with mental disabilities, school drop-outs, people covered from head to toe in tattoos, and suicidal individuals. I remember every staff member’s story – when they came, why they came, and what changes they underwent after working here for a while.
“Cafe Heato is about inspiring people to dream, to think about what they want in life. Staff come here saying they have no dreams, but what they’re missing is someone to encourage them to think big.”
The cafe has extended its work to include sharing sessions with young people from nearby areas. Chan and his employees talk to them about pushing boundaries in life to achieve goals.
The sessions are arranged by social organisations that reach out to Chan regarding job opportunities for their members. The talks have since grown to the point where Cafe Heato now hosts more than 100 people in its space.
For staff members like Lam, it was the mission of Cafe Heato that finally gave him a direction in life. Now he gives talks at the sharing sessions to inspire those to turn their lives around like he did.
“The opportunities and experiences I’ve had here are difficult to come by. We’re not hiring people who want a job to get paid. We’re not hiring robots. The most important thing here is that the employees must have heart,” Lam said.
Cafe Heato has been nominated for the South China Morning Post’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards in the Corporate Citizen category.