In-Depth

Program Offers New Life Behind the Bar

South Africa's 'Beyond Bars' initiative gives ex-cons a chance to start over.
Stephanie Simbo addressing the Beyond Bars Forum.
Stephanie Simbo addressing the Beyond Bars Forum. (Photo: Oliver Petrie)

The bar industry is known for attracting unconventional souls, those who reject the formal white-collar world in favor of an atmosphere that’s more sociable. Forgiving, even.

Stephanie Simbo – a French entrepreneur and former bartender living in Cape Town, South Africa – knew this, and decided that bars might offer the perfect working environment for former inmates looking for a new start. She liked the idea so much that she started Beyond Bars Akademia, a non-profit that aims to facilitate the placement of ex-convicts within the South African bar industry.

The concept

“South Africa is suffering from an endemic of unemployment among the young. That’s one of the main reasons for the high rate of crime and recidivism,” Simbo says. “Female former inmates are the segment of the population most affected by poverty. So, as part of our program called Beyond Bars Project, we will offer the chance for 10 women [per year] to be enrolled as apprentices, and subsequently be granted job placements.”

The candidates will be selected in conjunction with Nicro, a century-old non-profit organization that specializes in social-crime prevention and reintegrating offenders into society.

Belinda Bowling, Nicro’s Head of Business Development and Marketing, says, “We are thrilled with this social-enterprise partnership, as the impact of Nicro’s work is undermined if ex-offenders can’t gain a lawful source of income – which is the reality for most of our beneficiaries. Projects like Beyond Bars enable us to demonstrate that ex-offenders can be assets in the workplace, as has even been recognized by [billionaire businessman] Richard Branson.”

Marine Durand, a college friend of Simbo’s with extensive hospitality experience, soon came onboard, too.

So far, under the BBA umbrella, Durand and Simbo have organized an industry forum and initiated a mentorship program. Soon they will launch the school itself. (They also created an app that helps women stay safe in bars, which you can read about here.)

Steve Scheider, Johan Blaauw, Kurt Schlecter and Marshall Siavash (left to right) take part in the Beyond Bars forum. Steve Scheider, Johan Blaauw, Kurt Schlecter and Marshall Siavash (left to right) take part in the Beyond Bars forum. (Photo: Oliver Petrie)

The forum

“Our inauguration event, Beyond Bars Forum, was our first networking event dedicated to the actors of the hospitality industry,” Simbo says.

Key players were invited to discuss relevant hospitality issues, such as sustainability, upselling, superior guest service, teamwork, mentoring and boosting staff performance. Panel members included international heavyweights like Tales of the Cocktail’s Ann Tuennerman and 2015 bartender of the year Steve Schneider. Local movers and shakers like Caitlin Hill, Devin Cross and Kurt Schlecter also chipped in.

As well as supporting, promoting and growing the local hospitality industry, the forum provided the opportunity to introduce the BBA concept to the bar community and present the first group of former inmates.

“This was our first event to introduce our debutantes, and we were pretty pleased,” Simbo says.

The mentorship program

The forum participants proved wholly supportive of the BBA initiative. When industry leaders were invited to take on mentorship roles, they enthusiastically accepted.

Johnny Bezuidenhout, general manager at Arcade, immediately saw the value of signing up. “Mentoring is vital for the growth of the bartending community youth. It’s an amazing approach – the BBA – and I can’t wait to be a part of it,” he says.

Like many others who have worked their way up through the bartending ranks, Bezuidenhout experienced the benefit of a mentor. “My first and greatest was Kevin Snyman, previous brand ambassador for Bacardi. He opened up a lot of doors for me … assisting me in forging my way in the industry. When I met Kevin I didn't even know what a cosmopolitan was, he literally taught me almost everything.”

The mentees were similarly excited. Nwabisa Njaba, one of the candidates, said, “I’m really grateful for the second chance I’ve been given in life … I can’t wait for the school to start.”

The school

The Beyond Bars Institute is BBA’s hospitality school, where ex-offenders will be rehabilitated through experimental learning programs. The candidates will be taught theory, tasting, service and life skills, plus they’ll have the opportunity to receive the internationally recognized Wine and Sprit Education Trust certification.

“Our course includes 913 hours of training plus 250 hours of online content. We are very fortunate to have a global-education committee with veterans of the industry, such as Ann Tuennerman, to help us with it,” Simbo says.

The committee — comprised of experts in science, computer science, molecular mixology, service and front of house, bartending theory and wine-and-spirit education – was put together to ensure the course is top-notch.

For the successful candidate, the program will lead to pre-employment hospitality training and sustainable employment at several local A-list establishments, including Orphanage Cocktail Emporium.

The future

“My intention here was to start a conversation. Showing that rehabilitation is the way to go rather than more law-enforcement measures,” Simbo says.

“On quantitative terms, my hope would be to reduce the recidivism rate (at 87 percent) to almost none by year five, to all former inmates who went through BBA’s program. Also, being able to open a second institute by year five, and go from 10 students per year to 50.”

The inspiration

While Simbo’s experience tending bar might have sparked the BBA idea, her inspiration stems from years before. “I grew up in a rough neighborhood. I know first-hand what the lack of opportunities does to people: desperate conditions often call for desperate measures. I, too, did things I wasn’t proud of.

“My brother went to jail when I was 10, and when he came back he was a different person. Depressed. Back then school was making me happy, so I asked my mother if adult school existed.”

Twenty years later, Simbo is creating her own school for people like her brother. “Creating BBA was a way for me to tell them, ‘Society may have failed you, but I won’t,’” she says.

The challenges

The biggest challenge for BBA is funding. “Being a start-up, banks often close doors to us,” Simbo says. “And investors don’t often talk the same language as social ventures, looking for track records over wanting to impact lives.”

Still, Stephanie – with a master’s degree in international marketing an an MBA in international management – is fully equipped to realize her vision.

“We’re a non-profit company with an excellent Black Economic Empowerment scorecard. We have decided to play this to our advantage, and offer companies the chance to sponsor a candidate, allowing them to figure BBA into their [corporate social responsibility] policy.”

If you’d like to get involved – by offering cash, bar equipment or stock, becoming a mentor or placing a graduate – mail Simbo at sps@beyondbars.co.za. The school hopes to start in August 2017, with the first graduates taking job placements in January 2018.

For more cocktail industry news from South Africa, catch Leah on Twitter or Instagram.

Leah van Deventer For more cocktail industry news from South Africa, catch Leah on Instagram and Twitter as @LeahVanDeventer.

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