Vitasoy details its Homegrown Baristas project


A pioneering project from Vitasoy is creating opportunities in the coffee industry for young people in rural areas.

According to the ‘What Will It Take?’ youth unemployment report 2021, young people are 2.5 times more likely than adults to be long-term unemployed. As a business based in the regional community of Albury-Wodonga, Vitasoy is acutely aware of the challenges faced by young people in remote and regional areas. This statistic inspired the dairy-alternative company to launch the Homegrown Baristas project with its ambassador and 2019 Australian Barista Champion Matthew Lewin.

“Vitasoy is a brand that wants to do good, so we put our heads together to come up with an initiative that would benefit young people in less-populated areas who might have fewer opportunities than their peers in the cities,” says Matthew.

“I’m a country boy and spend a lot of time in regional Victoria, so for me it’s important to give back to that community. I know cafés are the heart of all towns – big and small– and there’s an opening for country kids to feel a sense of purpose by working and contributing to their local communities.”

The Vitasoy team collaborated with Matthew to mastermind a barista school project that teaches students everything they need to know about crafting great coffee. They piloted the initiative in autumn 2023, working with CafeSmart, an initiative supporting charities that provide grassroots community and homelessness services across Australia, to connect them with Phoenix Community College in Victoria.

“Our first year was very much about setting a strong foundation and framework for the project,” explains Matthew.

“We worked with four students, Ashley, Charlie, Blake, and Bree, aged 16 to 17 who joined us for a week of intense barista training. We were keen to engage young people who were nearing the end of their time at school because this is a prime period in their lives to soak up essential transferable skills.”

The team took over an existing café close to the school and modified it to create a MasterChef-style setup, in which each student had a workstation complete with espresso machine, grinder, all the tools you’d find in a café, and, of course, the full range of Vitasoy’s Australian grown and made Barista’s Choice dairy alternatives. Matthew and the Vitasoy team devised a five-day schedule, designed to build transferable skills from the ground up, and equip the students with the fundamentals to craft coffee at a very high level.

“On day one we started with foundations, such as machine components and café setup, and by the end of the day they were already pouring basic patterns,” says Matthew.

“From day two to four we built on these skills, progressing to diverse latte art design, preparing different types of coffee, workflow, resume writing, and interview preparation.”

The final day saw Matthew guide the students through what they had learnt and how to transfer it to the real world. Empowering the students with the knowledge and means to implement these practical skills in a work setting and provide a clear pathway into secure employment was particularly important to the Vitasoy team.

“They were ready to take the challenge head on and we felt incredibly proud of what they’d achieved. We also invited their friends, family, and the local community to come and see what they’d learnt. It was complete graduation day,” says Matthew.

As this was the first time they’d run the barista school, Matthew and the Vitasoy team were unsure how the students might cope under the pressure of training with an Australian Barista Champion.

“All the students started out with pretty much zero experience. Naturally they were nervous, and any one of them could have buckled under the pressure, but they were so confident, enthusiastic, and eager to learn from the get-go. What they achieved in the space of one week was relatively remarkable,” says Matthew.

The Vitasoy team returned to the school a couple of months on to assess the progression. Matthew says the most recognisable improvements were in their confidence and the community’s student- run coffee van.

“It was so fulfilling to see their skills in full flight and translated into the real world. The standard of the coffee served from the van had improved so much. It had even become more profitable,” says Matthew.

“They all said the experience of taking part in the project had a profound impact on them, and that they would never look at coffee in the same way.”

The week was documented by a film crew which followed the students on their journey through barista school. The mini documentary will be available to watch across digital platforms this April.

Following the success of the first year of the Homegrown Baristas project, Vitasoy is already planning the 2024 incarnation and has its sight set on scaling up the project with the help of some key partners.

“We’re looking forward to partnering with CafeSmart again as their reach and connection to the communities we can impact is essential. Vitasoy has been a supporter of CafeSmart’s annual event, in which hundreds of roasters, cafés, and coffee lovers across the country fund raise for local homeless charities, for the past seven years, and we will continue to work with the team to recruit participants for the Homegrown Baristas project,” says Matthew.

“This year we’re also looking to collaborate with a range of industry partners and are in talks with some key players who can help us expand the project to more young people in regional areas.”

Vitasoy views the project as a “closed- loop pathway”, which will see Homegrown Baristas graduates not only garner practical skills for employment but also benefit from the long-term support of the project.

“We wrapped up the first year feeling we’d done something really powerful, and we can’t wait to share it with others. Watch this space for the next instalment.”

For more information, visit

This article appears in the April 2024 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

Send this to a friend