Finding a way to make a difference is what drove many of the founders to set up these outfits across India.
When they say the cakes are life-changing in Kansabel, they aren’t kidding. The sole bakery in this village in Jashpur, Chhattisgarh, is run by survivors of human trafficking. Elsewhere, food is helping the mentally challenged, the recently homeless, the speech and hearing impaired, and acid attack survivors reach out, be seen, earn a living and operate within the mainstream.
Growing number of outlets prove the formula is working at outfits such as Mirchi & Mime, Mumbai, where all servers are speech and hearing impaired; Crust & Core, Kolkata, manned by the rescued homeless and mentally challenged; the Mitti Cafés in Karnataka that employ only the mentally and physically challenged; and Beti Zindabad in Chhattisgarh.
“The operative word here is sustenance. Real rehabilitation is when gainful employment comes with respect and sustenance,” says Ranjana Kumari, director, Centre for Social Research, Delhi.
When meaningful work is combined with fair wages and good working conditions, you have a sustainable formula. “It also makes survivor stories a positive example.”
Finding a way to make a difference led people to set up the cafés. Former journalists Ashish Shukla, and Alok Dixit had started a campaign ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ in 2013. Meeting survivors, they realised that was important to talk about the crime, but there wasn’t enough being done to help the women regain control of their lives.
“We wanted a café to offer not just sympathy but stability, to build confidence and work towards social re-acceptance,” Shukla says.
Sarbani Das Roy, co-founder of Crust & Core, felt the same. “The café is a space where two worlds can meet in an informal atmosphere and where the perceived chasm between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ can get a chance to dissolve,” she says.
The appeal works both ways. “When I first met the trafficking survivors, I realised that many were interested in cooking,” says Priyanka Shukla, an IAS officer and collector of Jashpur who helped them open a bakery. “Jashpur has a large Christian population, and there is demand for cakes, cookies and muffins.”
Market conditions have been good for the cafés with a cause, across the country. Sheroes’ Hangout now has outlets in Agra and Lucknow, employing 20 acid attack survivors. Mirchi & Mime opened a pub version, Madeira & Mime, in 2016 and the two outfits employ a total of 55 specially-abled servers.
The key is to make sure standards are high. “Like any restaurant, we serve great food first. We just happen to employ people who can’t hear or speak. People may come for the experience, but return for the food, and service,” says co-founder Prashant Issar.
In Kolkata, Crust & Core is funded by four philanthropic foundations and help is pouring in for Mitti Café, manned by a total of 36 mentally and physically challenged people.
“I had experience but little capital. I wanted to create something that speaks of inclusivity and tolerance,” says founder Alina Alam. The first Mitti Café was in a tin shed at a local college, donated by Foundation. “I started the café with `50,000 crowdfunded, and a lot of borrowed equipment.”
Employees describe the cafés as a chance to start over, support their families and reclaim their lives.
“When I was in Delhi, working from early morning to late night with all my earnings going to my agent, I never imagined I would be back with my parents,” says Rekha who works at Beti Zindabad. When she was rescued by the police, she didn’t know what awaited her.
“Then I heard about this job. Twenty of us were trained and we even went to Pune to learn how to bake,” Rekha says. “Today, when people taste the cakes and appreciate them, I feel life is good.”
The bakery did bumper business at Christmas. “But the best news was when we got a letter from the President’s office saying we had won a Nari Shakti Award,” says Pallavi*, another employee.
At Mirchi & Mime, one employee bought furniture for his house last Diwali; another bought a smartphone for her mother, who is also hearing and speech impaired, so she can communicate via video calls.
Ritu Saini, 22, one of the first employees at Sheroes’ Hangout, speaks of her initial struggles with interacting with strangers. “When I was attacked in 2012, it felt like my life had ended,” she says. “Getting over how you look, speaking to people was difficult. But the fact that I got this job that life could move on, gave me courage.”
Customers at Mirchi & Mime will tell you the menu is extensive, the food, delicious, and ordering without words is far easier than you would think. A matrix in the menu tells you how to sign for your dish.
“I feel the service is a step above average because the instructions are very clear and the servers are very focused,” says Rajan Khorana, 45, an entrepreneur.
At Crust & Core, mentally challenged women rescued from the streets were trained for 10 months in baking, cooking, running a kitchen — and dealing with strangers as well as their own and each others’ symptoms.
Women who are still withdrawn, have low energy levels or clinical mental health conditions work in the kitchens, layering cakes and pastries, making shells of tarts and quiches. Those with less severe symptoms clean, cook, wait tables.
A key selling point here, customers say, is the calm and cosy ambience.
“I’ve been there twice, first alone and then with my friends. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well-decorated it is. I plan to go back with my laptop and study there,” says Snehal Saraf, 22, a post-graduate student. “The servers did make small mistakes but they overcame such hurdles to work at this café, and that’s amazing to me.”