Unique Mumbai cafe empowers staff with developmental disabilities

Founder Dr Sushama Nagarkar thinks specially-abled people have great potential but lack opportunities

Mumbai: It was barely three months ago that a US-returned medico started a small cafe in upscale Juhu as a unique venture — mainly employing staff with developmental disabilities.

Now, Cafe Arpan has gained huge popularity, with many regular patrons, thanks to the 19 specially-abled staffers who work six days a week to make this trendsetter eatery a success.

“It was a dream and in planning for nearly a year, but only after getting a proper place and crowdfunding were we finally opened doors on August 2. I have 19 staffers, mostly full-timers, including my elder daughter, all having some or the other form of developmental disability,” Dr. Sushama Nagarkar, the café’s founder-owner, told IANS.

A psychologist and single mother of two daughters — Aarti (32), who has autism, and Divya (30) — Nagarkar wanted “to do something different, and empower people suffering from developmental disabilities”.

She first started a tiffin service around one-and-half years ago, which proved to be a hit, and employed over a dozen staff with afflictions like autism and Down syndrome, besides under-developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Located opposite the SNDT Women’s University Juhu Campus in Santa Cruz West, Cafe Arpan is specially designed for them.

“We have a limited yet distinct menu. There is ample space for the staffers to move around conveniently and everything functions on electricity for their safety. They can comfortably work around five hours a day and take home salaries comparable to industry standards,” Nagarkar told IANS.

In the age group of 23-50, most of them are barely literate, but they have learnt to handle everything “with complete dedication and focus”, said Nagarkar, who opened the eatery under the auspices of Yash Charitable Trust (YCT) — which carries out multifaceted social activities — of which she is managing trustee. “I returned to India after 15 years in the United States and started YCT in 2014 to bring people with developmental disabilities into the social and national mainstream, and make them responsible and contributing citizens,” she said.

Nagarkar thinks specially-abled people have great potential but lack opportunities, and initiatives like Cafe Arpan and the tiffin service contribute in a small way, helping them become independent and capable of supporting themselves and even their families.

Special popularity

Initially, there was a communication gap between the staff and patrons, but the latter proved very understanding and now it’s smooth going with the customers, who appreciate the initiative.

Open for 12 hours starting 8am, Cafe Arpan offers a simple but specially-designed menu of around 30 items like burgers, pizzas, hot/cold beverages and the like, which the specially-abled staffers prepare themselves.

“Dropping by for a snack, I was surprised when one of the staffers took my order, unusually quiet but apparently efficient, and then served it gracefully. Later, I realised that all the staffers here are specially-abled; the experience was amazing,” said Mini P. Menon, an awed customer.

She feels the venture would help people see those with developmental disabilities in a new light and open up new avenues for them to become valued members of the community.

Cafe Arpan’s hand-picked special team includes: Nazneen Kagalwala, Sudha Chhabria, Pratibha Kamath, Ashritha Shetty, Nandini Rajwade, Abuli Mamaji, Aaron Colaco, Samvit Desai, Chetan Jawale, Nikhil Sharma, Shefali Gundecha, Saurabh Kambli, Shonali Menon, Bunny Aman, Ram Bhiwandikar, Raees Shaikh, Anand Jangir, Gaurav Vanvari and Aarti Nagarkar.

On her part, Nagarkar said: “I briefly considered a similar venture in the US where I could have got ample state funding. However, I decided to start it up here as the need is more in India. Although I had to start from scratch, we are satisfied with the results and may consider expansion plans soon,” Nagarkar concluded.

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