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Cafe run by special-needs people goes the extra mile

SINGAPORE — Nestled in a corner of the Kembangan-Chai Chee Community Hub is a 56-seater cafe called the APSN Mystical Cafe For All. While its staff may take a little longer to serve customers, they dish up plenty of magic and heart.

Cafe run by special-needs people goes the extra mile

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong with the special-needs trainees who run the APSN Mystical Cafe For All. Photo: Koh Mui Fong

SINGAPORE — Nestled in a corner of the Kembangan-Chai Chee Community Hub is a 56-seater cafe called the APSN Mystical Cafe For All.

While its staff may take a little longer to serve customers, they dish up plenty of magic and heart.

It even has a “pay it forward” initiative where patrons are encouraged to buy a meal voucher, which they leave on the cafe’s board, to give the next stranger who might be less fortunate a chance to have a free meal.

Barely one month old, the social enterprise has made its mark — slowly but surely — attracting a steady stream of patrons who are a mixture of visitors to the compound, nearby residents and curious people keen to give the cafe’s fusion offerings such as Spaghetti A La Melayu, as well as their wholesome cakes and tarts a taste.

Among those who turned up on Friday (March 10) was Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who gave the cheesecake a big thumb’s up.

The establishment is run entirely by trainees from The Association for Persons with Special Needs (APSN), where instructors groom them on basic hygiene and service skills, as well as how to navigate the workings of the kitchen and pastry making.

They also plant herbs, spices and vegetables in a vertical greenhouse at the back, which go into the cafe’s kitchen, offering a “true farm to table freshness”, said APSN president Victor Tay.

Profits from the sales are channelled back to support APSN’s programmes and to pay the trainees an allowance.

Trainee Muhaimin Afandi, 23, who has mild intellectual disability, has gained much confidence working there. He hopes to one day open his own eatery.

Likewise, Mr David Tan, who has mild intellectual disability, was eager to gain new skills such as cooking, cashiering and interacting with customers.

The 25-year-old’s goal: “(Previously), I only knew how to cook Maggi noodles ... But here, I can gain some cooking experience so I can work (next time) and (be) more independent.”

Emphasising the idea of the cafe is to let the trainees gain real-world experience so they can get hired by companies eventually, Dr Tay’s wish is to reverse the mentality that hiring people with special needs would cause businesses to suffer.

APSN’s trainees, he noted, are a “competent source of supply” that labour-crunched small and medium enterprises can tap. He said: “Supervisors may worry about how they parcel out the instructions, or if (the staff) throws a tantrum.”

But technology and simple tricks such as colour coordinating utensils to match the table can help people with special needs be productive as well, he added.

“(We should) learn to shift away from that (mentality) where we hire (people with special needs) just based on compassionate grounds …, but then later cut their pay and remove them if they don’t do a good job … We need more evangelists (with similar models) to show that they’ve managed to do it well,” he said.

To train special-needs youths, pastry chef Samantha Lim, 27, who worked at Fairmont Singapore for four years, uses instructional videos and worksheets to get them familiarised with techniques.

“As a trainer, being able to impart them with skills is amazing, because you’re helping them to be independent, go out and get a job and support themselves,” she said.

Despite the added stress of having many orders and deadlines to meet, the trainees are always excited about working at the cafe, and in fact, can be more “hardworking” than most people, she said.

And when they learn to make a new cake or pastry, their faces light up “like they have struck Toto”.

To do their bit to help others like them, the cafe trainees worked for an extra five hours on Friday, and donated the day’s takings of S$900 to the TODAY Enable Fund, a charity fund for the special-needs community.

Support the TODAY Enable Fund for the special needs community. Find out more via www.todayonline.com/enable.

If you know of more stories of people with disabilities, email us at today [at] mediacorp.com.sg

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