Marco den Dunnen, a local cop who looks more like a street musician, gestures at a young Moroccan man named Abdel, who's chatting up pedestrians in front of Ookami. "Abdel is respected in this neighborhood," Marco says. "But here he works his broom like anybody else."
Ookami, which opened its doors earlier this month, is a unique coffee shop in Rotterdam-West. Marco initiated the project Heilige Rotterdamse Boontjes Koffie ("Holy Rotterdam Coffee Beans") together with social worker Rodney van den Hengel. It is here that Rotterdam's juvenile delinquents get the opportunity to help build the Rotterdam coffee brand, as well as build a better life for themselves.
Abdel grabbed this opportunity with both hands. "In crime, you can make money quickly. I did this too. Deal drugs. Jobs for bigwigs," he says. "But here my life is completely different. The job surprises me every single time. I used to think: Making coffee is just a matter of messing with some coffee beans, water, done. But now I've learned that it's about care, love, and precision."
"What would you like to drink?" Marco asks. I order a black coffee, which is brought a moment later by a quiet worker named John. We sit outside in the sun, but the blue smoke emanating from the basement, where the coffee is roasted, quickly envelops us.
"In this neighborhood, stature is very important," Marco tells us, gazing over Mayor Meinesz Square. "If you're a wild kid with the balls to act like a daredevil, then you are respected. A man has to provide for his family—this way he earns esteem. With expensive Nikes on your feet, you give people the impression you've got money."
But the reality is that not everyone gets a job here. "Trust me, the only thing these kids want is to work," emphasizes Marco.
"We've created a place here where status, which is valued so much in street culture, is guaranteed," explains Rodney. "The kids aren't making a fool of themselves, because the quality is incredibly high. Ookami looks trendy, and they're working with the best machines."
But in order to create decent coffee with this equipment, external help was needed. Pauline, a barista and a distinguished coffee expert in Rotterdam, teaches the boys to make coffee and to roast the beans. "I really appreciate the fact that quality is held in the highest regard here," she states. "When you make bad coffee, it becomes another dull project where anything goes. People drink and purchase coffee here because it's good coffee, not because of charity. We work with high-quality Brazilian beans that are full-flavored."
"Working with such advanced La Marzocco machines has to be taught," she adds. "The same rule applies for the roasting, which we do in the basement with a Giesen roaster. It is handmade by a Dutchman. And the coffee grinder is Marco's baby. The boys are quite adept and they learn quickly."
Coffee roasting is a unique process. "You mainly learn through experimentation," explains Pauline. "A difficult factor in this process is the fact that the beans have to sit for a while before you can taste them. After you've tasted them, you can make adjustments to the process that have a direct influence on the taste. The flavor of the bean is influenced by the duration of the roasting process. Once you can manage this, a whole new world opens itself to you. Only then you discover the infinite number of variations present."
This variety is being taken literally by some. "Look, I prefer to have my espresso as raw and hardcore as possible," says Marco. "These guys throw anything and everything in it. They even created a so-called 'West Side Story.' All sorts of sweetness goes in there: caramel, maple syrup. The coffee is called 'West Side Story' because it really fits the neighborhood. The friends of these kids aren't purists with regard to their coffee. We make really good coffee, and they adapt it to the community's preference."
"The West Side Story is something specific to us," John tells us. "We experimented and this hatched as a result of it." In the beginning, John had reservations concerning the project. "I was scared and thought that I would have to adhere to rules. I'm somewhat of a free spirit, and think that things have to come out of somebody naturally. There's space for that here, since the creation of coffee directly relates to feeling. I've come to love the trade."
It's quite a sight, watching three huge guys stand behind the counter together with barista Pauline. "Pauline wouldn't have wanted to know us if she'd met us on the street," says John.
"It's definitely a contrast of two subcultures," Pauline admits. "But it's very enriching. This morning I had a Moroccan pancake and an espresso. When I came here for the first time, I really felt the need to talk to the guys about who they were, and what their past was like. We had many conversations about this topic."
Paulo, a cheerful worker, has no difficulty sharing stories from his past. At 40 years of age, he feels responsible for the younger generations. "I've had a healthy life. I grew up in the street life of the 80s. There were many Yugoslavs that were involved with the trading of weapons. And the Surinamese, they were involved with drugs. You have to be strong-willed to not be swayed by this. Street mentality is very self-centered. You constantly hear people say: 'I want this, I want that.' I want to destroy that selfish world."
But how can he do that with a coffee shop? "Making coffee is emotional. If you're involved with it, you don't think of your ego anymore. The atmosphere is always good here. If someone is being negative, we all start laughing about it out loud."
But it's not always that easy for everybody. Robin, another worker, believes in the project, but also fears what might happen if it's not a success. "If you want to have a job, you have to undergo a tedious solicitation process. There is so much bullshit red tape you have to go through. I solicited for a zillion jobs, but never got hired anywhere. Thinking of this, I still get pissed off." Robin thinks that the standard for getting a normal job is way too high. "The most obvious alternative is crime. And trust me: the smart guys will never get caught."
"But the world of crime is hopeless," he concedes. "Here you're doing good. My expectation is that we'll become a staple in this neighborhood, and that we ultimately pour the best coffee in Rotterdam. And that kids like me get a second chance."
This article originally appeared in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.