Drinking in the rich story of Humble coffee

Drinking in the rich story of Humble coffee
Winning women, from left, Nomfundo Nyezi, Amy Gardiner, Sindi Mgenge, Smiley Ngcobo, Nelly Magqabi and Sam Mbatha. (Photo: Group Selfie)

Durban’s Humble Coffee was conceived as a roastery by a wee Scot from Edinburgh. Ideas percolated. Then culinary magic happened, including a café of the year award. Chalk it up to woman power?

When Amy Gardiner moved into the ground floor of a factory-type location in an industrial neighbourhood on the wrong side of the culinary track three years ago, it was to have a place to roast coffee and sell it from. “I never intended it to be a café. I moved here mainly because, with coffee-roasting, you need things like a loading bay. For big deliveries of, like, 300 kilos of coffee, you don’t want to have to lug it up a bunch of stairs.” 

Gardiner is from Edinburgh, Scotland. And let it be said right at the start, she has a passion for cooking and recipe development. Stress-baking is her tonic. She has “always” wanted her own business, started working her first café job at age 13 and has long been “obsessed” with hospitality. “When I was a child my mom and dad would take me to an Italian restaurant and I would pretend to be a waitress. That was the start.” 

Oh, and she doesn’t miss haggis. But if arm-twisted to miss something culinary, it would be tattie scones, which are a kind of Scottish potato pancake. And “a classic Scottish chippy”, which I find it difficult to get my head around, even though my gran on my mom’s side was from Glasgow. Turns out it’s the common term for a fish and chips shop in the UK. 

How Gardiner came to be in Durban is a story of serendipity, resolve, initiative, gumption and get-up-and-go. Keep reading for the espresso shot (short) version. For now, let it be known that she is a wee Scot with the energy of a caber tosser. “Wee” along with “aye”, said as often as a Sarf African might say “ja”, being two favourite words that roll with her bonny Scottish burr. And, yes, her conversation is peppered with refinedly raucous assertions about this and that. Like, “I’m 27. Young, I know. But I feel 40!”

Two days a week, Amy Gardiner is in at 5am roasting coffee beans. (Photo: Lucy Markewicz)

Gardiner began her roasting journey from a small facility in Durban’s then-hip-and-happening Station Drive, for a time “the” First Thursday hangout for eating, drinking and partying. Which perhaps, with things opening up as we learn to live with Covid, will get some of its oomph back. Then there was a year spent roasting in an available corner of an Afro Chicken in Umhlanga, “having to lug hundreds of kilos of roasted coffee to Florida Road”, where for a time she had a pop-up outlet.

These trials and tribulations are recounted with humour, many mentions of gratitude to this person and that, and no hint of complaint. “But with a loading bay, the back of the truck can reverse in and I can wheel all those coffee sacks right into the roastery. And obviously, being a little off the beaten track, the rent was more reasonable.” 

In her roastery would be an espresso machine, “so I could say, do you want to try this from Ethiopia? It’s delicious.” She anticipated doing toasties and perhaps a couple of other edibles. “We didn’t have a kitchen. Just a stainless steel table with a sandwich grill and some granola in a Tupperware.”

People who came to buy beans, no surprise, wanted to sample the coffee in a relaxed fashion, while having something to eat. So Gardiner created a simple menu. Avo on toast. Those toasties. “But then, things just started to sizzle. People began suggesting things. Asking for things.” She listened to customers and her growing little staff team, paid attention, experimented, tweaked, added. “Suddenly we had 21 menu items.” 

Not only that, but she had knocked through a wall and created a co-working room, which at weekends becomes an events and party space. “We’ve had cake decorating classes, cookie baking classes, baby showers, quite a few parties.” 

Humble now has options for breakfast, for brunch, for lunch. Many for vegans. They are open seven days a week. “This is all so unexpected. Even as we grew, I pictured us more as a weekday grab-a-bowl, office and working space kind of place. I can’t explain to you how random it is, like I never expected to be doing pancake stacks and French toast on Saturdays and Sundays for tables of eight or nine people. I’ll sometimes be standing and looking and I’ll say to Smiley (Ngcobo, Humble’s main barista), why are these people here? Where have they come from?”

There is delight and a trace of wonderment in her voice, which kind of matches an intentional philosophy. “From the beginning I said I wanted everybody who walked through the door to feel welcome. I don’t know if you know but in Sweden they have a term. It’s, like, there is ‘hem’ and then there is ‘hemma’. ‘Hem’ is, like, your house and ‘hemma’ is, like, the feeling you get when you’re home, when you’re relaxed in your house, when you’re safe.” 

“Hemma” is what she was after. And when I ask why she chose the name “Humble”, it dovetails. “I wanted something simple that people could relate to. I think coffee can sometimes be intimidating so to build a brand around the idea of being unpretentious while still delivering a quality offering was important to me.” 

She shares kudos with her woman-power team – “it just kind of just happened that way” – for every success. “We have so many amazing young individuals energised and ready to work in this kind of environment. But a lot of the time, they will have no experience. So as much as I can, I try to employ people I see potential in. Their outlook, their attitude, their energy. And then train them kind of holistically, so everyone is skilled in every station. Of course some people are just naturally good with food, some with coffee, some in the kitchen.”

Fast-forward less than three years from when she opened, in September 2019, and wow. Caffeine wallop. Humble Coffee, Gardiner and her all-women team are named SA’s Café of the Year by Coffee Magazine. “We started the Coffee Magazine Awards four years ago to celebrate and encourage the growing South African coffee industry,” says editor, Melanie Winter. Read about Winter’s coffee journey in TGIFood here

“Café of the Year is one of our most coveted awards and has previously gone to Truth Coffee in Cape Town and Thirdspace by Seam Coffee in Johannesburg. Café of the Year is a space that ticks all the boxes of the café experience.” Like? “Making new customers feel instantly like regulars and providing delicious food along with a top-class coffee offering.”

Clockwise from top left, pancake stack; granola bowl; Amy’s fig and almond cake; artichoke salad. (Photo: Wanda Hennig and Lucy Markewicz)

The food at Humble is fresh, simple, simply delicious. On my first visit the week before last I had the hummus toast with sliced avo, microgreens, nuts and seeds; the bread from Barry the Artisan Baker, “who sends it sliced, wrapped in foil, frozen, so you defrost it overnight and bake it again in the morning so it’s fresh, and being sliced is saving us so much time and me a whole lot on physio bills from the shoulder injury I got from slicing”. My lunchtime friend had the breakfast bowl with sliced avo, soft scrambled egg, smoked salmon he raved about, nuts and seeds and microgreens. 

On another visit, a chocolate cake on the counter looked scrumptious. When I heard it was vegan, I was in the process of changing my mind (thinking back to vegan custard that once ruined a perfectly good malva pudding) but was assured it was as yum as it looked. It came with whipped coconut cream and a berry compôte and lived up to appearances. My lunchtime friend that time, who called for help when she couldn’t find the place even with clear instructions and their full-window “wake up and smell the coffee” mural, which I mention to again highlight their unlikely location, had the smoked salmon bagel. The bagels arrive boiled and frozen from master baker Adam Robinson and Glenwood Bakery, which means they can be freshly baked each day. “Delicious” was her verdict.  

I shared another friend’s three-cheese toasted sandwich on yet another visit when we both took our laptops to join the other working stiffs in the light-filled relaxed café where well-behaved dogs are welcome.

Humble’s menu is pescatarian. “We have fish. Smoked salmon and sometimes tuna.” While Gardiner eats meat, she doesn’t have it on the menu. “I just don’t like the idea of storing meat or cooking meat here. Also, it means there is no chance of cross-over contamination so we actually appeal to a lot of different dietary requirements, which is great.” 

One of the four ‘plate’ options, Turkish eggs with whipped feta, herby mushrooms, sautéed greens and nut sprinkle. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

The focus is on fresh and tasty. Many items, even the eggs, are delivered by someone on a list, long as her arm, of carefully selected small suppliers. “The more we can do every day, the better because people really respond to fresh food. So we use a few different bakers.” 

Like the baking whizz who has perfected a banana bread recipe “so does all of ours” and this baker’s sister-in-law, “who does our cheesecakes and millionaire shortbread, gluten-free and vegan”.

Gardiner reels off names, including a “cake princess” and well-known home baker and artisan, Carole Paxton, “who makes a clementine cake when they are in season, and a flourless chocolate, and our Kouign-amanns on the weekend, which are very popular”. 

Gardiner loves baking and “if I feel stressed I’ll just go into the kitchen and whip up something” but, mostly, she doesn’t have time. Except if her Fruit King supplier buddy calls and says, “we’ve got beautiful figs or cherries on special and I’ll say oh great, give me a punnet and whip up something special.”

“I just try to use as many people as possible,” she says. “It’s very nice being able to support lots of different little hobbies and people trying to start small businesses. I know what it’s like in the beginning when you’re trying to set something up. Can be really tough and tiring. So anything they want to make and deliver that sounds amazing, I’ll stock it.” 

Coffee bags with beans for roasting and the art of coffee. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

“What is this?” I am whacked into the present and stop Gardiner mid-sentence at the first sip of the cortada delivered to me within minutes of formally sitting down with her to chat. She tells me it’s a single origin Guatemalan coffee. Called Finca Morito, like many Central American coffees, named for the farm it’s from.

She gets her coffee beans from different importers. “I try to steer towards the premium coffees. Coffee is such a complex industry. All our coffees on the shelf have traceability back to origin and back to the farm. I don’t have a direct relationship with the farmer and don’t pretend I do, but I know that it is being ethically sourced and the farmer is not being taken advantage of.” 

The coffee she roasts changes all the time, “because we import seasonally, try and get the freshest there is. Sometimes people are dismayed. They will come for a certain coffee and we have to say, oh I’m sorry, it’s finished. And, like, when are you getting it back in again? And, like, probably never!”

Traceability is harder in terms of Ethiopian coffee “because you’re looking at vast areas of growing and farmers might only have 20 trees so all the coffee is barrelled together and so you can’t say, farmer A or farmer B, as it’s all delivered together to one site. So yes, I trust the importers and know they have proper relations with the farmers and pay them properly. And that is why we’re paying a higher price for our raw product.” 

She has noticed, and it doesn’t just apply to coffee, that many customers want to know where what they are ordering comes from. “People are very in tune with what they are consuming. Sustainability is becoming trendy.” 

There is a lot of coffee out there and same as with chocolate, there is no industry standard. People might look at what she is charging and then look at the price of a supermarket coffee, where the price might be lower but their profit far higher. “You have to stick to your guns and trust your gut.” 

A Humble sarmie in the café-as-workspace. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

How Gardiner came to be in Durban and roasting coffee had its origins in a relationship between her high school in Edinburgh and “two sister schools” in Umlazi J Section, Dloko Secondary School and Zwelibanzi (High School). “We did an exchange with students in our final year.” She was 17 when “70 of us came here in 2012 for 14 days. We paid our own way and fund-raised for students from here, 15 or 20, to go to Edinburgh where they stayed with host families.”

She had started working in a café, down the road from where she lived, when she was 13. “I was a KP, a kitchen porter. You’re everybody’s busybody. Washing dishes. Keeping the dishwasher going. Polishing cutlery. That’s sort of how I got into the hospitality sphere. I was working Saturday and Sunday, 10 until 1, as legally I couldn’t work more than that.” 

Soon as she could, she started adding to her hours and her experience. Taking on more responsibility. Making coffee. Working in the kitchen. By 16 she was a barista.

On that first trip to Durban, she fell in love with the energy of the city, the sunshine, the friendliness of the people. A year later, at 18, wanting to see more, she returned. Moved into a backpackers on Florida Road. Stayed for three months. Worked in Umlazi as a volunteer: teaching assistant, extra-English tutoring, helping set up a peer mentorship programme. 

“Then I ran out of money so had to go back to Scotland, back to the coffee shop. To work. To save.”

She was back again at the end of 2014, aged 19. She could stay on with a study visa, so enrolled for a Bachelors of Communications at Varsity College. Qualified. “It’s proved very useful because I communicate with people all day.” With her background in coffee, she got a part-time gig at Durban’s Love Coffee. “It was an amazing opportunity. I was so lucky as I got to see more of the Durban coffee scene.”

Meanwhile, over a couple of years she’d written down ideas for businesses she thought might work. “I never thought ‘coffee roastery’. Ever!” But she saw a gap in the market for cold brew coffee. Thought she might do that “as a little side hustle”. She went down a lot of different paths exploring the possibility. “And kept getting the same answer. The only way to make it profitable was to roast my own coffee.”

Which is how the idea of roasting coffee entered the picture. 

“I did a bit of digging and the more I read, the more I kind of got so interested to do it.” 

She acknowledges she is a risk-taker and, “I was lucky enough that I could loan this amount of money to buy and import the roaster from Turkey.”

Early days involved “a lot of trial and error. I knew how to run a coffee shop as I’d been working in coffee shops for ages. But the science behind roasting coffee was something else. It is hugely complex and involved.”

She says she was lucky enough to get help from people like Chad Whitby, then head roaster at Durban’s long-established Colombo Coffee. “He helped me understand the science; helped me with the cupping.” Which she and her team do together with, “just, like, every single roast, to see the effect of the roast profile. To try to get that coffee to the best it can be.”

She has several different coffees on her shelves. Why so many? “Just to keep it exciting. We have people who come and buy coffee regularly for home use so I like to have six or seven origins at one time.”

So, I ask, if I wanted to choose one and didn’t know which, how would I go about it? 

“You’d catch someone’s eye. Tell them. Then, hopefully if my training has worked, they’d ask all the right questions. How do you brew at home? Plunger? Moka pot? Pour-over? Do you have a grinder? How are you going to drink your coffee, with or without milk? Do you like floral flavours? Or fruity? Or more chocolatey and nutty flavours? It’s kind of like a process of elimination.” 

Gardiner lives, with her partner, a 10-minute walk from where she works. And, remarkably, finds time to fit in other things. Yoga on Wednesdays. A promenade run on Thursdays. “We’ve got seven animals. Five cats and two dogs. I just love animals. That’s another hobby. Some people call it hoarding, but I say it’s rescuing. I love them all so much. They keep me busy, but it’s worth it.”

The food’s done now. The menu, supplemented by seasonal specials, is done. “I’ve got an amazing team in the kitchen. They’re strong. They’re getting the food out. There’s a really strong front-of-house team. I’d really just love now to focus more on the roastery side of things. We’ve got all the tools. We’ve got great, amazing coffee. I’d just like more people to be drinking it.” DM/TGIFood

Visit Humble Coffee on Facebook, on their website, on Instagram.

Follow Wanda on Instagram wanda_hennig


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