A Beirut cafe that offers coffee, tea and empathy

In addition to coffee and empathy, Agonist serves tea, juice and smoothies along with homemade desserts baked by the coffee shop’s chef.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Wassim el-Hage surrounded by some of his staff at Beirut’s Agonist coffee shop. (Beirut’s Agonist)
Creating opportunities. Wassim el-Hage surrounded by some of his staff at Beirut’s Agonist coffee shop. (Beirut’s Agonist)

BEIRUT - Agonist Coffee Shop is a special cafe. Tables do not have numbers but coloured signs. Customers tick their order on the menu and mention their table’s colour to facilitate identification. Agonist is the first in Lebanon run by a team of employees with special needs.

“I tried to get some fundraising or sponsorship without success. People were sceptical about the feasibility of the project and did not want to take risks but I have deep faith in the capacities of individuals with special needs. They are not abnormal, just special,” said Wassim el-Hage, owner of Agonist Cafe.

A physiotherapist, Hage is familiar with the capacities of people with disabilities and decided to offer them a place to work where they can have direct contact with people.

“They are usually working behind the scene on artisanal and handicrafts but we never see them selling their own products directly to the public,” he said.

Open since mid-December, Agonist Coffee Shop is gaining popularity to the surprise and delight of its owner.

“The reaction of the public is very positive. They are happy to be served by them. They take pictures with them, talk to them. I was a bit concerned in the beginning that the people would not accept the idea but, on the contrary, the place is becoming very popular because of them,” Hage said.

“At the same time, the staff feels they are appreciated and motivated. They are gaining more self-confidence as they get increasingly involved in society.”

Hage collaborated with the Lebanese Down Syndrome Association in recruiting workers. His staff includes 12 employees. They have participated in a 3-month training programme to prepare them for the job. They work 6-hour shifts and there are usually four people working per shift.

“Their disabilities are of different types and degrees. Some can interact better than others but they all have the capacity to grasp and understand what is requested of them,” Hage said.

Elie, Maria and Dolore have Down syndrome. They are all smiles and energetic as they welcome guests and show them to their tables. They offer them a basket from which customers choose a piece of paper containing a heartening message.

“I never worked as a waiter. At first, it was difficult for me to move around the tables carrying the trays but, after the training, I could do it easily. On the opening day I could carry more than ten trays,” said Elie.

“I love this job, as well as the atmosphere and my colleagues. They are like my siblings. We help each other and I am very happy,” he added.

“Here it is the most friendly and homely atmosphere. I am so happy to talk to people daily, take care of their order and see that they got what they want. I am never tired. I can work for many hours,” said Dolore enthusiastically as he took an order from a customer.

Farah, who suffers from Angelman syndrome, is the cafe’s cashier. “I am so happy to work here,” she said. “My shift starts at 7 in the morning but I stay until 11 in the evening. Wassim does not want me to stay that long but it is like home here.”

In addition to coffee and empathy, Agonist serves tea, juice and smoothies along with homemade desserts baked by the coffee shop’s chef.

“The clients come here because they know about the concept. They come to encourage them,” Hage said, adding that parents whose kids have special needs are happy that for once, in a coffee shop, their children aren’t stared at.

“We need similar projects to help integrate the disabled in every region in Lebanon. It will help break taboos because families with disabled children tend to hide them from the public eye,” Hage said.

“Agonist is not about being a common coffee shop as much as it is about giving the disabled work opportunities and causing a positive reaction in the society; to change the way people look at them and raise awareness about them,” he added.

Since the day after the cafe’s opening, people have flocked into the new shop.

“I knew about Agonist through Facebook. It is such a beautiful concept and I wanted to encourage it,” said one customer. “I have no problem with people with special needs. On the contrary, they should be part of society like us. “

The word “agonist” is a medical term about parts of the body that work in unity and cause a positive reaction. Since the official opening December 16, the coffee shop has been nothing but a true positive agonist, Hage said.