When we think of restaurants, cafes, or eateries, we don't generally think of them being diverse or inclusive. There are restaurants across the country that have walked away from the crowd, offering a space where guests are greeted by differently-abled or we rather say, ‘specially-abled’ staff. Not just they have garnered much appreciation but have also supported society with a larger cause. When Ashaita Mahajan, Co-founder of Cafe Arpan started narrating the story, she was more original and enthusiastic than any other restaurateurs. After all, she is part of a bigger cause rather than just a co-founder of a cafe that serves scrumptious food.
For Mahajan, nothing is more important than creating awareness about Autism, while she draws her inspiration from her cousin Aarti who is an active member of Cafe Arpan. The cafe is an initiative started by an NGO called Yash Charitable Trust, founded by Dr Sushama Nagarkar who herself is a parent of a young adult with autism. Initially, it was started as an Arpan Dabba Service which is now called Arpan Food Services. The main idea was to create a platform for people with disabilities to come and work in an inclusive environment. They were an integral part of every step, not just making the Dabbas but also in packaging and delivering and even in procurement for vegetables, groceries etc.
“But in Dabba service, one thing that was missing was the ability to interact with the customers. In two years, the number of people working with us expanded five times, so we couldn’t fit all people into the kitchen. Thus, Cafe Arpan was born in 2018. We started crowdfunding and raised 8 lacs in15 days,” added Mahajan by pointing that there are people who believe in such businesses.
Pic Courtesy: Brinston & Dylan
Pandemic gave multiple challenges
Currently, due to the pandemic, everything had to be paused. But unlike other f&b businesses Cafe Arpan had multiple challenges. The major one was to keep the teammates safe and away from the sense of isolation. To overcome the situation, Mahajan and her team were continuously organising zoom sessions, which included activities like art, craft, meditation and yoga.
“We were adamant on continuing the payout support so we crowdfunded and also launched campaigns last year, which came out as a great help. Our USP is our team,” Mahajan commented. Later, when Cafe Arpan re-opened its doors for the guests, all the staff members were incredible in terms of picking up new training and new SOPs.
Similarly, for Pune’s first restaurant with specially-abled staff Terrasinne, lockdown came as a challenge and the restaurant faced its share of challenges. “But, not to give up on such a wonderful deed kept us going. Whichever ways we could help our staff during this time was a priority,” Dr Sonam Kapse Owner of Terrasinne said.
Every such restaurant has come up with a different mechanism to cope up with the ongoing crisis. The restaurant chain run by deaf and mute, Echoes cafe for an instant have come up with different modules like creating product-focused future-ready QSR/delivery brands and also integrating the café/fast casual(Echoes Living room) with retail D2C products.
Sahib Sarna, who is one of the co-founders informed that the restaurant chain has changed its business strategy in the past year completely by creating assembly line processes and modules to train the differently-abled staff in different roles like Barista, Kitchen etc and not limiting their roles to just servers or floor managers. “That was the main reason we could engage and empower them more in delivery and retail modules of the business,” he added.
Creating a fast-casual brand that generates employment for the Deaf and mute section of the society and also motivates all sections of society is the vision with which Echoes strive to move ahead.
Society has always been kind
“It feels ecstatic when you see a specially-abled person becoming confident day by day in his work, is his/her interaction with world around and also when guests giving them a thumbs up and enjoy the whole interaction,” Sarna commented.
While at Cafe Arpan, people love to come over specifically to celebrate their birthdays, anniversaries etc. Mahajan believes that the team members are extremely capable of doing things. “They just need acceptance, opportunity and a chance. Our customers are very open,” she said.
However, managing restaurants or eateries with specially-abled staffs comes with its own set of hurdles and difficulties. Sarna informed that the team did face a few hurdles in the start while convincing that a restaurant can be run completely by deaf and mute employees, where interaction is the key element. Adding to it, training SOP’s, creating different situations about things that could happen in a fast-casual environment was a challenge in the start but with time and most importantly working patiently helped to move past that.
'Inclusivity ' does take time, as kapse states. But once every process is in place it's an easy task.