Text and photo by Carolyn Hong
There has probably never been a more eager wait staff than this young man behind the counter. Poised for action, he leapt to fill the order for a coffee, and carried it carefully to the table.
Not a drop spilled, and he beamed.
The staff in Project B, a chic café in Kuala Lumpur, are all from a school programme run by the Dignity for Children Foundation for underprivileged and refugee children.
Project B is, in fact, part of its programme to provide F&B training.
But the café doesn’t look like a typical drab training facility. Stylishly stark in black, white and light wood, the interior is enlivened by a quirky giant rooster on the wall and a huge scrabble board spelling out inspirational words.
Its menu isn’t a generic one but has interesting offerings suited for any of the chic cafés popping up all over KL.
Project B has all the hallmarks of a professionally-run café. And that’s because it was conceptualised and created by the Big Group, a Malaysian F&B company with a chain of quirky cafés.
Project B is a joint project between Dignity for Children, Big Group, and Berjaya Foundation which belongs to the Berjaya Group of companies. A tripartite effort, each party lent its own particular resources and expertise.
The B in Project B stands for both Big and Berjaya.
Dignity for Children lent its expertise on the social needs of the neighbourhood, Big Group gave its technical know-how while Berjaya Foundation provided funding.
It worked like a charm.
The café opened to bustling crowds, with food that earned good reviews, despite its unlikely location.
Project B is located deep in Sentul, once a working class neighbourhood with houses next to cow yards but is today rapidly gentrifying.
Sentul is where Dignity for Children Foundation began as an ad-hoc initiative by pastor Elisha Satvinder and his wife Petrina in 1995. They had then just returned from their studies abroad, and were living there with his parents.
They were troubled to see the many poor families in the neighbourhood.
“What future do the children have? The cycle is just going to repeat,” he said.
The couple began to buy food and clothes for the families, and tutored the children.
The ad-hoc tutoring turned into a pre-school class for 40 neighbourhood children and refugees. Then, they added a Year One class, then Year Two and so on as the children progressed. It now goes all the way to Form Five.
“After 17 years, more than 4,000 have gone through our doors. We still have around 1,000 children,” Elisha said.
For some of these children, this is the only school that they attend. It’s not free, of course; free things are rarely treasured. Parents pay around 10 per cent of the actual cost with the rest provided by donors.
Besides academic classes, the children also learn vocational skills like woodworking, hair styling and childcare, and now the F&B business as well too.
The idea for Project B came about in the most fortuitous of ways. Robin Tan, chief executive of the Berjaya Group, had popped in to visit Dignity for Children and had lunch with Elisha at the foundation’s dining room. Tan enjoyed the food but was taken aback by the basic kitchen.
“He saw it, and said ‘oh no,’” said Elisha.
Some months later, Tan rang up and presented Dignity for Children with a nearby shop lot as well as the funds for its renovation into a proper café. No conditions were set other than that it should be self-sustaining.
Benjamin Yong, the founder of the Big Group, immediately offered his help.
“And so, it became a solid partnership,” said Elisha.
The Big Group devised the menu, dressed up the space in the distinctive style of Big cafés, and sent its executive chief and barista to train the children for six weeks. They continue to oversee operations.
The 25 ‘staff’, aged 16 to 18, are from Dignity’s learning centre who have been selected to get hands-on experience in the F&B business. They do everything, from running the kitchen to serving.
As this is part of their school programme, they only work a few hours a week.
“It is for those who can’t manage in the academic stream but when it comes to skills, they come alive,” Elisha said. “After this, they may perhaps go on to culinary or hospitality schools.”
As a novel tripartite social enterprise, he said it had worked successfully as the partners had specific roles which do not overlap. There was no conflict.
He said this can be a model for Dignity for Children’s plans for future ventures such as a hair salon.
“I think this is a fantastic way to work. Because the Big Group has the skills and branding, the quality is there. And Berjaya gave us the resources. We didn’t need to start from scratch, and the impact is much stronger,” he said.
Any surplus from Project B go entirely to Dignity for Children.
Dignity for Children can, thus, focus on the social objective of the venture.
“That’s the most important thing,” Elisha said.
And that is what gives Project B its energy and spirit, and sets it apart.
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