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India’s café revolution: Helping the marginalised find their feet

It really isn't just about coffee anymore. A distinctive café revolution has taken place across cities, with several run by, or employing, people who would otherwise find it difficult to find a space in mainstream society -- from those with special needs to the HIV positive to acid attack survivors.

It’s a long alley that leads you to this glass-walled cafe. Even before you have stepped into this coffee shop you are greeted by a family playing at the carrom board placed outside along with some high chairs. A world of colours awaits you as you step inside, creating a warm, inviting atmosphere that you immediately settle into. A children’s play area in one corner, mismatched chairs – some wicker, some wooden and some boutique – and a swing chair in another corner create a lively ambience that’s instantly appealing. If we hadn’t known better, we would have treated Café ICanFlyy as just another café that has become the latest rage in Kolkata. But this café is unique because it is the first of its kind run by special needs individuals. It is a venture of the I CanFlyy Institute, which works in early intervention and skill building of individuals with special needs.

Talking about the Institute, Minu Budhia, Founder of Café ICanFlyy & Founder-Director of ICanFlyy, says, “At ICanFlyy, selected students begin by working on their social skills and grooming. Simultaneously they begin spending time at the café, observing the current café crew. Then they continue their training as trainees, greeting customers and handing out the menu. Before they begin serving food and beverages, they practice with dummy trays to get used to walking about the physical space of the café. They also practice answering FAQs about the café and the food. Then they try their hand at serving food first, and then beverages. When able to do that confidently, they begin learning how to make recommendations when asked by the customers. At all stages of the training they are supervised by a special educator, the principal, the café coordinator and us.”

Guiding us to a table, Meghna handed over the menu informing us the order had to be given at the counter and then she would serve us. She is part of the special needs crew. It was late evening and the café was bustling with customers. While children played in one corner, the parents or couples were engaged in board games, a number of which were stacked in shelves on one side. In an age when the smart phone gets all the attention from adults and children alike, the ambience of this café, located next to Maddox Square Park, was a welcome change.

Preeyam Budhia, co-founder of Café ICanFlyy & Director of ICanFlyy, says, “We have been welcomed with open arms and showered with love from the city since the day we opened our doors a year back. The café not only shows the world the potential of special needs individuals, but also grows our café crew’s self-confidence and self-esteem. Such individuals are often considered ‘less’ than others, and often teased or bullied. Working at the café gives them a sense of pride and belonging, and the feeling that they too can be an active part of society. At Café ICanFlyy we encourage customers to leave a note for the Café Crew about their experience. There are hundreds of such messages with people sharing how their day was made special at Café ICanFlyy. The fact that many visitors from outside the city now put our café on their must-visit list is very heartwarming.”

Café I CanFlyy is one of the many cafes in India that is driving change in multiple ways. The response has been so good that the café has expanded from a 25-seater one to a 50-seater space within a year. While on the one hand it is building awareness about special needs people, bringing them in contact with mainstream society and encouraging healthy interaction and understanding, it is also focusing on skill development and job opportunities.

The Café revolution in India

There is no denying the fact that a café revolution has taken over India and the revolution is including the marginalized in its wake. All over India there are cafes run by people who would otherwise find it difficult to get employment. Café I CanFlyy might be the first café run by special needs individuals but Kolkata has another first in this count – Café Positive, the first café in Asia run by HIV+ young people.

This café is tucked away in a small garage in Jodhpur Park in South Kolkata. It took six months for Kallol Ghosh, the brain behind the café, who belongs to the NGO Offer to find a place to start the coffee shop. The owner of the garage Indrajyoti Dasgupta moved his car out and gave them the space because he wholeheartedly believed in the initiative. Since then Café Positive has got the attention of national and international media, and also an overwhelming customer footfall.

The teenagers who manage the cafe, were abandoned when their parents found out that they were HIV+, and grew up in Anandaghar, a home for such children run by Offer. After attaining training in running a café the hunt for space began. Just when the young people seemed be be giving up hope the garage space was the solution. The decrepit space was soon turned into a bright spot with red brick walls and low seating space. It’s been opened only two months ago but people are thronging Café Positive and sharing the positivity on social media.

One such person is Kaushik Sengupta, a self employed person. The moment he read about the café in newspapers, he visited the place and has not stopped talking about it since then. “I think this is a phenomenal initiative. It was a pleasure talking to the young boys and girls who are running the café. They are all pursuing their studies and working there in shifts. I liked the sandwich and coffee I ordered. They serve everything in disposable plates and one can see them making the coffee and other food items behind the glass pane in the kitchen. It’s really clean and cosy. I think we should all stand by this initiative and debunk all the myths that surround HIV+ people. These youngsters are absolute fighters and we have much to learn from them.”

Kallol Ghosh said, “It’s been open only a couple of months but the response has been phenomenal. I had seen such a café in Munich and from then started thinking of doing something like this for the children of our orphanage Anandaghar when they turned 18. We serve 11 types of coffee and it is through a discourse over coffee that we try to address the myths and misconceptions surrounding HIV and AIDS. Many organizations have invited us to open such cafes in the district, which we are planning to do. Recently someone wanted to register their marriage at our café!  I think will go a long way in awareness building.”

Cafés leading the way

Long before these two cafes started in Kolkata the Sheroes Hangout in Agra has been leading the way. The café opened in 2014 and is run by acid attack survivors. Done up in vibrant colours and cosy wicker chairs with a book corner and space for selling clothes and trinkets, Sheroes Hangout has obtained wonderful reviews everywhere. The place is frequented by foreigners and Indians alike. While the café has provided a much needed platform to the survivors of this gruesome ordeal, giving them a new hope is the best part of the business model. There is no price on the menu – you pay whatever you think is the right price.

Inside the Sheroes Café in Lucknow. Pic: Sheroes (via India Together)

Sheroes Hangout, which was started as part of a campaign by the NGO Stop Acid Attacks, has spread its wings to Lucknow and Jaipur too. Alok Dixit, the man behind the initiative, said on their website: “Sheroes is an attempt not only to provide jobs, but also to change the mindset of the people, to develop a soft corner in their minds for the victims and sensitize them to the issue. People should be engaged and survivors should be brought to the mainstream.”

That’s why at Sheroes there are book launches, social awareness conferences and music sessions, through which people can be alerted of the circumstances, consequences and aftermath of an acid attack.

What Sheroes Café is doing for acid attack survivors, Writers Café in Chennai has done for burn survivors, who find it equally difficult to find employment and grapple with self pity. Started and funded by restaurateur M Mahadevan, the profits from the café go to International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), which works closely with the cafe. The ladies are trained by a Swiss Chef and some are even sole breadwinners of the family. The cafe has several interesting spaces for groups big and small, plus an open restaurant area. A mini bookshop with books from Higginbothams, adds to the charm. The Citizen Matters Chennai team counts it among their favourite hangouts.

Differently-abled are capable too

Taste of Darkness, in Hyderabad and Bengaluru, is run by blind people, Mirchi and Mime in Mumbai is handled by the speech and hearing impaired and Nukkad, The Teafe in Raipur, Chhatisgarh is run by deaf and mute staff.

Mumbai resident Virvadia writes on Tripadvisor about Taste of Darkness, “It’s a must do, an amazing experience. The journey to Hyderabad would have been incomplete without this. First time in my life that I got the taste of darkness. I realised the value of sight. My other senses were awakened. The guide was wonderful.”

This café is part of the Dialogue in the Dark initiative that was started in Germany in 1988 and brought to India by SV Krishnan in 2011. One can go for the entire experience where canes are handed to visitors before entering the zone and they are guided by the visually impaired people. This has been helping  sensitize people towards the blind and people also realize the importance of other senses once they plunge into darkness. Apart from food there is the option of an exhibition tour, workshops and special workshops for school children.

Mirchi and Mime, in Mumbai’s Powai suburb, is a complete Indian restaurant helmed by an international chef, and  boasts of tasteful décor. Members of the staff interact in sign language and there are numbers on the menu and basic heads up on sign language that you can use when you order. In fact, diners are encouraged to order in sign language.

Restaurant owners Prashant Issar and Anuj Shah want to make Mirchi and Mime into a chain of 18 restaurants with presence in Dubai and Singapore. They have already opened Madeira and Mime in Mumbai and want to employ 4000 speech and hearing impaired (SHI) people in their restaurant chain in future. In order to communicate with the staff the owners learned sign language themselves. Some members of their staff got married after joining the restaurant because of their new-found financial independence and some got promoted to managerial posts.

Nukkad was started in Raipur long before Mirchi and Mime, although on a smaller scale. It also employs only SHIs and has rules like one has to deposit one’s mobile before entering the café. Owner Priyank Patel feels happiest when he sees regular customers picking up sign language.

Back to society after incarceration

After serving a term in jail, people often find it tough to find employment. That’s how the idea of Tihar Food Court came up. Now for most tourists a visit to Delhi is incomplete without a trip to Tihar Food Court. Inmates, who are nearing the end of their term in the jail, are imparted training and then absorbed in the food court staff so that they get the experience needed to find a job after release. Even while in jail they are allowed to travel by cycle, unescorted, to work in the Food Court, from the jail dormitories which is half a kilometer away. It is a fairly large space with accommodation for 50 people and a varied menu.

The Book Café in Shimla, which is run by inmates of the open-air jail there, has also become a huge tourist attraction. The staff is serving life terms but they feel being in touch with the outside world have changed their lives. With books in focus, it has become a place frequented by literary figures and where book readings and book launches are held frequently.

The café revolution in India with its focus on awareness, employment generation and financial independence have truly given a new lease of life to the marginalized.


  1. Sagi Krishna Prasad says:

    Wonderful and Heart Warming. A lot of us are second/third liners .. waiting for some front liners to take the Initiatives head on .. and then extend support to them. It is equally great that there are many Front liners .. and so many second liners .. willing to embrace them to make them succeed. Very encouraging signs for both the Front-liners and second-liners. They are all making us learn more and more Empathy for a win-win World. Regards.

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