Hidden Hero: Scott Bentley

With his recuperative ‘care packs’ the coffee aficionado is helping struggling baristas get through the Covid-19 lockdown. By David Burrows.

When I call Scott Bentley he is brewing a coffee. He needs the stimulant given that he and Tim Ridley, from United Baristas, have taken it upon themselves to lead the speciality coffee sector through this lockdown.

“We wanted to let the people in this community know that we’re still thinking of them, that we still care and are here for them,” says Bentley. “Because if they feel forgotten then they won’t be there when the coffee shops reopen and the hospitality sector restarts.”

Bentley has already heard of instances where baristas – who are often highly skilled but poorly paid – have lost their jobs and found others where they feel more valued. One example he offers involves a coffee-maker turning carpet-layer. “That’s one case but I feel it’s happening more than we’d like to think. If you are on minimum wage and you are furloughed, then 80% of that isn’t much,” he says, “especially if you also feel you’ve been forgotten. We need to hold onto these great people.”

This is why, when Covid-19 hit and most of the hospitality sector was shuttered overnight, Bentley knew something had to be done. Working with Ridley at United Baristas – which is there to “connect the coffee industry” on everything from jobs to second hand equipment – he came up with the idea of the “Barista Care Packs”: a little parcel of goodies that would help those without work get by and, perhaps more importantly, show that there is a support network out there for them.

The package includes products like breakfast cereal and soup, as well as a book or magazine – plus some coffee beans of course. Bentley is keen to point out that this isn’t a food bank operation. “We wanted to help them get by, but moreso we wanted to show someone is looking out for them.”

The target is to send out 400 packages by the end of May, paid for by donations from the public and some of the businesses in the speciality sector. As founder of Caffeine magazine, Bentley’s contacts extend far and wide, which meant those applying for a package could quickly be vetted to ensure they were who said they were.

However, Bentley doesn’t mind admitting that he had to engage in some deception tactics of his own during a cash and carry trip to fill the first 100 packages. “We had an old card and ended up having to phone a friend to use their account. We completely fudged our way through.”

More money has now been raised through an auction, with brands having donated merchandise and services (at the time of writing there was an espresso machine front-end service up for grabs, as well as a water boiler). He name checks Oatly – “they’ve been incredible” – but suggests other brands have been less altruistic. “Some see what we are doing as a sampling service for them,” he says, but this scheme isn’t about marketing certain products.

In fact, it’s morphed into something much more than a package of goodies. On Thursdays, there is a Zoom yoga session run specifically for coffee people. One assumes this has as much to do with aching wrists, necks and backs as it is staying calm when they return to work.

The coffee shop scene will look very different given some of the new measures being put in place. From what Bentley has seen so far, the independent cafés seem to be following the government’s guidelines “to the nth degree. There are Perspex screens and stickers on the floor showing new one-way systems. It makes going for a coffee look dangerous,” he says.

There is also the question of whether, currently, it is actually safe to return to work. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week suggested that some parts of the hospitality sector could reopen on July 4th at the earliest. More coffee shops are reopening every day, with a takeaway- or delivery-only offer. But this leaves baristas and other staff with a dilemma: what if they don’t feel it is safe to go back?

This is why Barista Care has now begun doing information videos, offering advice for staff and owners. Recent ones have covered the rights employees have when they are on furlough and helped proprietors know where they stand with landlords. “Some landlords are still playing hardball,” Bentley explains. “So even if the government’s advice is not to charge for this quarter’s rent, some are still asking for something. Others are agreeing to the pause but then want to claw it back over the following 12 months.”

Meanwhile, for those that are thinking of reopening, there is the issue of whether it really works financially. “If the footfall is 20% of what it used to be, then what should the rent be?” Bentley wonders. “There is serious confusion. What’s more, I don’t think that any shops are opening up because they think it’s the right thing to do … some feel they have to.”

Whether owners decide to keep the shutters down or take the first steps back into business, the Barista Care platform that Bentley has helped create will be there to support both them and their staff. “The message is we are here and we want you back up and running when it’s safe to do so,” he says.

In the meantime, there is no sign of Bentley stopping. The next stage of the project is being developed: for £7, those in the coffee sector can sign up to “Bean buddies”, through which they will get an “amazing” bag of coffee and the chance to have a 1-2-1 with someone else in the community. The hope is to hook junior members up with more senior ones. “The youngsters can pick the brains of the experienced ‘buddies’, or they can just talk about the flavour notes in the coffee they’ve both been sent.” Amongst the senior buddies are UK Barista and Coffee in Good Spirits champions. “They could also get to talk to me,” says Bentley. I dare say the first they’d want to do is thank him.

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