Learning > Inspiration

Dine well, do good

The challenges of working with former convicts, senior citizens and disabled youth unfaze eateries which set out to hire such staff

Annabeth Leow on 27 May 2012

Publisher: The Straits Times


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It was an opening day many food stalls would kill for. When Xin Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh opened its second outlet in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 on Wednesday, it was full house by lunch time.


But this is no ordinary pork rib soup shop. The eatery's first outlet, in Jalan Kayu, opened in March last year. Besides providing former convicts with employment, Xin Soon Huat dishes out free meals to lower-income senior citizens living nearby too.


For co-owner Jabez Tan, 38, and his mentor Don Wong, 52, both ex-convicts themselves, Xin Soon Huat is a way to give their staff a fresh start.


Mr Wong, who is a pastor at Christian halfway house The New Charis Mission in Geylang, says: "People always say it takes up to a year to break even, but by the fourth month, we had made enough profit to consider opening this new stall."


Mr Tan's team are already working on setting up a third outlet, in Hougang.


They went into the food and beverage industry because Mr Tan himself was trained in cooking. In prison, he says, he used to cook for those on death row and thought it would be a skill he could easily pass on.


Other eateries which train and hire members of marginalised groups are also thriving. Three-outlet Eighteen Chefs, which hires ex-convicts and youth at risk, is in talks to franchise the business overseas.


Personal motivation is a strong impetus for many who plough their savings into these social enterprises.


Like Mr Tan and Mr Wong, Eighteen Chefs' owner, Mr Benny Se Teo, 52, was also a jailbird once.


Other such eateries include examples of "seniors helping seniors" and the parents of disabled youths employing young people with similar conditions.


Chatters Cafe, where all 15 employees are aged 50 and above, opened its first outlet in Parkview Square near Bugis in December 2009. Since then, it has also launched a catering service for elderly residents of NTUC eldercare centres, and opened its second outlet in Ren Ci Community Hospital in March this year.


The business, which is run by proactive-ageing company Silver Spring, which also offers career coaching and other services, has had zero turnover for the past two years.


Managing director Helen Lim, who describes herself as "65 years young", says: "We want to walk the talk ourselves, be a working model for employing older people."


She adds that a new outlet may soon be in the works at another community hospital, and the company is considering a catering contract for an upcoming retirement village.


One Chatters success story is chef Charles Chow, 63. His 55-year-old wife Tan Swee Poh is also a cook there. Mr Chow, who worked professionally in hotels and restaurants, says that the Parkview Square office- workers who patronise Chatters have come to know him for his black pepper chicken chop.


He joined Chatters part-time in 2010 because of its flexible work hours, which allowed him to care for his ailing mother, who has since died.


Also benefiting are people with disabilities. In January last year, Believe NJ introduced a delivery service for the muffins which its employees – youth with intellectual disabilities – bake. It was originally set up as a training cafe in 2008 but switched to deliveries because its employees worked better outside the stress of a social environment.


The Joan Bowen Cafe, which set up shop in Jalan Wangi off MacPherson Road three years ago, is staffed by developmentally disabled youths.


The cafe was opened in 2009 by couple Khong Yoon Kay and Jeanne Seah, both 55, and named after their daughter Joan, who is disabled. They opened a second outlet in Francis Thomas Drive in August last year.


The Young Men's Christian Association, whose flagship Y-Cafe at its Orchard premises has trained youths with autism since 2008, opened the Sidewalk Gallery Cafe in the same building in September. It will be developed as another place of employment for youth with special needs.


Laksa eatery Laksania, which opened in nex mall in 2010, will open an outlet in East Coast in August. There are plans to have two more branches, one in the east and one in the Bugis area.


Laksania was founded by Madam Sim Sin Sin, 50, who is also chief executive of the Secret Recipe cafe chain.


It employs workers with mental and emotional disabilities. Madam Sim was moved to hire such staff after visiting the now-defunct Clifford Centre cafe Barista Express, which hired people with mental health conditions.


The employers emphasise that they remain committed to quality – they are just more willing to take employees with special needs into account.


At Chatters, induction cooking and low shelves reduce the need for heavy pots and pans to be carried around a big kitchen, while flexible working hours go easy on creaky joints.


Mr Chow says: "The only problem is the automated cash register. Sometimes, it's a bit hard to see what to press."


Two-year-old Western restaurant Soul Food in Commonwealth Drive, has a large 350 sq ft kitchen, as its team of disabled youth can be uncomfortable in hot, cramped spaces and need more control over their environment, says founder Gerald Png, 54.


He left his marketing and communications career to open a restaurant because his 20-year-old daughter Cheryl, who has a learning disability, "likes to potter around the kitchen and help me whenever I'm cooking".


At Laksania, workers on psychiatric medication that gives them tremors do not have to handle heavy crockery or hot soup.


Yet the road to success can be rocky. Ms Seah from Joan Bowen Cafe says they have had to let employees go when their worsening health conditions made working too difficult.


"As parents, it is often painful to let anyone go because we understand the emotional pain that any parent goes through whenever any avenue is closed," she says.


Similarly, Mr Eric Ng, 48, whose Western food stall Wow Wow West in Bukit Merah hires ex-convicts, is holding back from expanding his business.


About half his staff eventually fall back into crime, despite his efforts at counselling them.


Nonetheless, he says: "I think it's good that with more new restaurants and more competition, it will challenge different social enterprise eateries to work harder and do better."

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