Cafe Arpan: A Warm, Lively Cafe Run By 12 Youngsters With Developmental Disabilities

This is the onset of breaking stereotypes – a cafe which is run by differently-abled (it would be apt to fondly refer to them as superheroes) staff was opened on 2nd August. This cafe, leads a movement of empowerment and of spreading the love. This cafe, is Cafe Arpan in Mumbai.

The inspiring Cafe Arpan

These superheroes who run the cafe prepare and serve simple yet delicious food and beverages that will not only feed the hunger of your stomach but also of your mind. And these dishes are garnished with love with a dash of hope for a brighter future. At the same time, they also manage the lively place, giving you a welcome warmer than any other cafe you would have been to.

Cafe Arpan is founded by, Yash Charitable Trust with Sushama Nagarkar, who is the Managing Trustee of Yash Charitable Trust at the helm. The cafe has been praised and lauded by people for its fresh concept and a strong message for the society – nothing can stop you. Nagarkar saw the potential in these youngsters and made them believe that it was their disability which was their special power. And so, we just find the name “superheroes” apt for them.

(L to R) Ashaita Mahajan (Trustee, Yash Charitable Trust) with Dr. Sushama Nagarkar (Managing Trustee of Yash Charitable Trust) | Photo courtesy: Rema Chaudhary

Yash Charitable Trust (YCT) has one mission of assisting people with developmental disabilities. They help them make their own space in society, guiding them to utilize their complete potential, generate productivity and live a satisfactory life. The aim of the trust is to make these adults socially engaging and make them earn their livelihood with such initiatives so they are independent in life.

YCT has had two initiatives which have helped to generate income and employment for the people who have Down Syndrome, autism and other disabilities, making them ‘able’. One is Cafe Arpan and the other is Arpan Dabba Service, which runs a daily ‘tiffin’ service. It is being run for three years now. Freshly prepared meals, home cooked on a daily basis are delivered to people who keep coming back to them.

Cafe Arpan’s concept has been inspired by a cafe in Manila, in the Philippines. They found a story on the BBC website, which was a story about a family who opened a cafe in Manila, called ‘The Puzzle Cafe’. Out of the six children, they have one child who has autism. So they opened the cafe for their son to earn his own livelihood.

Cocktail Zindagi speaks with Ashaita Mahajan who is a Trustee at YCT and the niece of Sushama Nagarkar, the Managing Trustee of Cafe Arpan.  We also had a chance to talk to the lovely people who run Cafe Arpan. Ashaita firmly believes that Autism is not a disorder, and it cannot stop you from doing what you want to pursue in your life.

Lets’ delve into the workings of Cafe Arpan.

(L to R) Ashaita Mahajan (Trustee, Yash Charitable Trust), Anuj Jodhani (F&B advisor), Dr. Sushama Nagarkar (Managing Trustee of Yash Charitable Trust) | Photo courtesy: Rema Chaudhary

Cocktail Zindagi: How did you start the cafe?

Ashaita Mahajan: Me and my aunt Sushama Nagarkar put up minds together after ‘The Puzzle Cafe’ was started in Manila, Philippines. We are working in the food industry for the last 3 years, after we started the Arpan Dabba Service. We were thinking of another platform where we could employ these individuals. Cafe Arpan is a very new concept in the Mumbai city but globally it is not new. Mumbai did not have this kind of a new concept so we set this up.

Cocktail Zindagi: What is Arpan Dabba Service?

Ashaita Mahajan: It started in 2015 and this was Yash Charitable’s first supported employment program for the employment of individuals who are differently abled. We provide a safe and secure environment for a person with disabilities to work in. We also provide additional added support that they would need for every step. All of our team members have been taught how to prepare the ‘atta’ flour. We strongly believe that they can do all this but with additional guidance, they progress faster. They will take more time to get the work done but they will do it well. I personally believe that in today’s times when everything is rushed. taking time to do something will ensure quality. Arpan Dabba Service is just a 2-minute walk from Cafe Arpan. We even get to use the dabba service’s kitchen as our backend kitchen. It has no gas connection and is an electrical appliances based kitchen. The whole design and menu have been crafted in such a way that our team works with speed, without any hindrances.

A cozy corner at Cafe Arpan

Cocktail Zindagi: I observed that you treat them very normally.

Ashaita Mahajan: Yes, my aunt Sushama Nagarkar is a psychologist. She has worked in the field of special education. Along with being a counsellor she also teaches. Due to the lack of awareness among the people, they tend to react differently to disabilities. We have seen people with disabilities having big dreams and they even work towards it. We have just provided them with a small platform, where people be themselves they are not into any kind of pressure and are completely at ease. We treat them with a level of respect and dignity they should get. Food is just a platform which serves to bring in the change in our team’s lives.

Aarti Nagarkar, a staff member serves food to the customers at Cafe Arpan

Cocktail Zindagi: Do you have a message for people who are shy of doing something different or taking an initiative?

Ashaita Mahajan: The initiative on our part was very ambitious and we did a crowdfunding campaign last year online. The platform was called ‘Impact Guru’ which supports NGOs. We raised Rs 5 lakhs in 15 days. We were lucky that we were able to raise Rs 15 lakhs. There are many people out there who support our idea. There is definitely a scope of achieving it. We want more and more people to have such places which show that these individuals have a larger platform to showcase their talents. But they need to be more realistic when they replicate with ideas like this, since this is Mumbai. Things are expensive. We want people to spend some time with us when they want to start something like this. Learn things from us since we have already started this. In the end, you have to find resources and people within your networks to be able to help you out.

The delicacies at Cafe Arpan

Cocktail Zindagi: How is the staff member’s life at Cafe Arpan?

Ashaita Mahajan: We don’t keep them with us unless and until they don’t want to work with us. There have been instances where the individual’s family members have also come to us and told us to hire them, but we haven’t because we want them to work with us by choice and not when anyone else tells them what to do. Initially, we started with 5 members and we pay our team a salary, we are compensating them quite well.

Cocktail Zindagi: While setting up the cafe you must have faced some challenges?

Ashaita Mahajan: We have faced challenges outside our team when it came to setting up the cafe. The team loved working with us from the start. They have achieved a lot and we cannot wait how much more they can achieve.

A staff member at work at Cafe Arpan

Cocktail Zindagi: Tell us something about your mentor, Dr. Sushama Nagarkar.

Ashaita Mahajan: Dr. Sushama Nagarkar is my aunt, and she lived in the USA with her daughter Aarti for over 15 years. In 2013 they decided to move back to India. It was a trial for Aarti whether she would adjust in India or not, but within 6 months she told her mother she wants to live in India. Sushama Nagarkar always wanted to set up something like this with adults with disabilities. The idea of sending these adults to a special school is not great. They are in their adulthood. Basically, Sushama’s friend was running a ‘dabba service’ from home. Her idea was that we would collaborate it with her. After doing that we had an empty 200 sq ft, garage space where we set things up and used it for the Arpan Dabba Service. Now our team sits together. We taught these individuals to peel, cut the vegetables, making atta, masala, prepping food, mixing stuff, packing, labelling and delivering. Each and every person has different strengths and abilities. We focus only on their abilities, not their disabilities.

Cocktail Zindagi: How is the response you have got?

Ashaita Mahajan: People love this. It is rare that when you go to a place to eat the waiter will come and start chatting with you. Here in Cafe Arpan, our staff goes and speaks with them even after taking their order. The customer seems to love such things. We tell them not to do that often when you are at a workplace but the response, reviews from the customers is very loving. We always want to bring a different kind of experience to our customers. We will always remain a special cafe.

Some memories that adorn the walls of Cafe Arpan

Cocktail Zindagi: Tell us something about yourself.

Ashaita Mahajan: I have no connection to the F&B industry, neither a connection with working with disabilities. I have masters in Music Management, I have worked in events. I was working with Sony Music which was my last job. Before this, I was working in NCPA for years, in the outreach department where I had the opportunity of working with many NGOs. Something happened last year and I realized that this is not me, the work was not working for me and I left the job after a month. I am a volunteer here and I love doing it, spending time with these people over here. Aarti Nagarkar is my biggest inspiration and I want her to live her own life the way she has thought of and imagined.

In conversation with ‘Aarti Nagarkar’ who works at the cafe. She makes food and loves listening to music. She is the daughter of Sushama Nagarkar who has initiated the concept of Cafe Arpan, owner of Yash Charitable Trust.

Aarti Nagarkar

Cocktail Zindagi: What do you prepare at Cafe Arpan? What do you like to serve?

Aarti Nagarkar: I make food here in the cafe and serve people. I like to serve the Cheesy Nachos, Falafel Tikkis, coffees and juices to the customers which are the famous dishes of the cafe. I love to prepare the ‘Videshi Vada Pav’, where first you put the bread, then lettuce, tomatoes, potato patties.

Cocktail Zindagi: Being a music fan what kind of music do you like? What is your age?

Aarti Nagarkar: I like English, Hindi, Marathi songs. I enjoy Opera music and Rock & Roll. I keep on singing the song ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from Titanic and another song which makes me cry is ‘Hero’ by Mariah Carey. I am 32-years-old.

While speaking with another staff member of the Cafe whose name is ‘Abuli Mamaji’, who has Down Syndrome, we get to know more about his life.

Abuli Mamaji

Cocktail Zindagi: Why do you work here?

Abuli Mamaji: I love to make coffees, teas, juices, burger and, Mexican Bhel here.

Cocktail Zindagi: Who is your favourite Bollywood actor? What is your favourite movie? Are you a dancer?

Abuli Mamaji: I am a die-hard fan of Salman Khan. I love Varun Dhawan’s dancing. And my favourite movies are many – Tiger Zinda Hai, Race 3, Judwaa 1 and 2 top the list. I love to dance on Varun Dhawan’s songs.

Cocktail Zindagi: You want to work in movies? How old are you?

Abuli Mamaji: I want to work in Judwaa 3, and my age is 42.

Abuli shows us some of his moves. Here’s a video you should check out:

Speaking with Cafe Arpan’s another staff member who name is ‘Nikhil Sunil Sharma’ we learn more.

Nikhil Sharma

Cocktail Zindagi: What work do you do here at Cafe Arpan and at the Arpan Dabba Service?

Nikhil Sunil Sharma: I work in the bank department of the cafe and do inventory and filing. For the Arpan Dabba Service, I go with them to deliver lunch to places.

Cocktail Zindagi: Do you like doing the work? Who is your favourite actor?

Nikhil Sunil Sharma: Whatever the work is I am fine doing it. I like doing bank work. I deposit cheques, and cash. At home, I like to watch KBC. When there are lots of mythological questions asked to the contestants I answer them very quickly. My favourite actor is Amitabh Bachchan.

Pratibha Kamath who prepares a lot of delicious meals, tells us more about herself.

Pratibha Kamat

Cocktail Zindagi: What do you like to make here at the cafe? Tell us how you make the cheese garlic bread.

Pratibha Kamat: I love to make sev-puri and nutella sandwich. I do a lot of things in the kitchen. I love to cook. I take the cheese and garlic and spread it on the bread. After that, I put it into the oven and once it is baked, I place it in a plate which is then served to the customers.

Cocktail Zindagi: What do you like to eat the most? What do you cook at home for parents and grandparents?

Pratibha Kamat: I like to eat and cook dal, rice, and chapathi.

Pratibha at work

Cocktail Zindagi: What are your hobbies?

Pratibha Kamat: I love to play the sitar which I learned from my father and Aparna Deodhar, my guru. On the 2nd of December I have a program where I am performing. I like going out in the market and I enjoy doing the Bharatnatyam dance.

We speak with a volunteer, Hutokshi Banaji, who has been working here for two years.

(L to R) Cafe Arpan’s manager Mihir with volunteer Hutokshi Banaji

Cocktail Zindagi: How has your volunteering experience been until now?

Hutokshi Banaji: Basically I am working here in the Arpan kitchen for two years. I thought that I’d like to do something for society. I asked them if they required any volunteers. I rang up Sushama and asked. She told me to come here and I am very much fond of cooking basically. The staff was very much thrilled to have me. I do the work of instructing and guiding the children. How they are supposed to handle the customers. The children over here are very loving and affectionate.

If you are in Mumbai, Cafe Arpan is must-visit!

Special thanks to Ashaita Mahajan for the warm welcome we received at Cafe Arpan and for making this interview possible. The spirit of the people who work at Cafe Arpan can be a guiding light for anyone who is going through a tough time in their life. Three cheers for them!

Samyak Sheth
Samyak Sheth

A traveller and journalist who views the world wearing multi-coloured goggles. He believes that life is to live not to survive.

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‘Cocktail Zindagi’ is not just a publication, it is a journey in itself in which you play an important character. We work to bring you stories not only from the crème de la crème but also from the grass root level.We also write content that portrays the beautiful shades of life, thus the name ‘Cocktail Zindagi’.