SINGAPORE: The Autism Resource Centre (ARC) has opened its first social enterprise cafe, Professor Brawn Cafe, in a school. The outlet, which is located at Raffles Institution (RI), was officially opened by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Wednesday (Jul 18).
The cafe provides job opportunities for the special needs community and gives them a platform to showcase their talents and abilities. Under a partnership with Gong Cha, it also offers a selection of drinks from the popular bubble tea brand’s menu.
Five of the cafe’s 10 employees have special needs, and are paid competitively based on their job scope.
ARC’s deputy executive director Jacelyn Lim said that the centre's main intention in setting up the cafe is to drive the message of inclusion and create jobs for those with special needs.
“They get to learn skills, apply their skills and be productively employed,” she said. “Second, there is also dignity – work is dignity, and that’s very important. It also gives them financial independence.”
Professor Brawn Cafe was first founded in 2009 by Mr Roland Tay and his wife, ARC President and Member of Parliament Denise Phua. However, in the middle of this year, the couple decided to donate the brand to ARC, as it has the job coaching expertise and network to expand it to benefit more people.
With the change, the brand closed its two outlets located at Novena and Boat Quay. The cafe at RI is the first to reopen under ARC’s management.
CAFE SHOWS WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE INCLUSIVE: ONG YE KUNG
Speaking at the opening of the cafe, Mr Ong pointed out that the model is an illustration of what it is like to be inclusive.
“You see a delicate, artistic and careful balance,” he said. “On the one hand, there’s a lot of inclusiveness because they’re in the middle of a mainstream school, where students will get to be served by them and interact with them.”
“But on the other hand, this is also a sanctuary, where they feel safe, and where people know what kind of cafe it is and calibrate their expectations,” he added.
“So it’s about striking a balance. And that’s important for the education system as well.”
WHY SET UP IN A SCHOOL?
There are obvious benefits to setting up the cafe in the school, with ARC’s Ms Lim explaining that it gives them affordable rental and a “captive crowd”. Previously, she said, the cafe functioned on a “typical commercial model”, with high overheads.
Ms Phua, who is also chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said she has observed that in some schools, volunteer work or community involvement is not done on a daily basis.
“It’s usually done once a year, or once a term,” she said. “So having this inclusive workforce, in a mainstream setting, where the students are actively involved and engaged, is really a more effective way of involving the community in supporting them.”
She added that the RI students have helped with food tastings, publicity and even co-creating menus for the cafe. RI, she also pointed out, has been one of their earliest partners, and it was “by chance” that the school happened to have a space for them to set up the cafe after a previous tenant vacated.
Since the cafe opened for business at the start of the month, Year 5 RI student Rowena Chua has visited “multiple times”.
“I think by now, the entire school community has visited the café,” she said, describing her experience as “the same as at any other restaurant or café.”
“When we go there, we know we’re interacting with a group of people who are slightly different, so I take a bit of caution when I interact with them,” she said. “But there’s no need to possess any stereotypes or harbour any misunderstandings about them.”
“Because after a while, you get to know them, and you realise they’re pretty much the same as us.”
Moving forward, ARC also hopes to replicate their model in other places, and Ms Lim stressed that they are not limiting themselves to operating only in schools.
“Ultimately, it’s about the message of inclusion, and that’s not confined to schools.”