Visually-impaired chefs dream of opening a cafe
Aaron Yeoh is an entrepreneur with social change on his mind. Not only does he believe that turning a profit and making a positive impact in the community are goals that are not mutually exclusive, Aaron even started a food business with these as its key performance indicators. His start-up, Fortitude Culina, hires the visually-impaired as chefs.
“We want to create better wellness through food, build communities with strengthened health resilience and promote social and economic mobility for the visually impaired chefs through handcrafted meals,” the enterprise proclaims on its website.
Some may see its aim of creating social and economic empowerment for the physically-impaired as a tall order. Research by the Singapore government in 2018 and 2019 found that two out of three persons with disabilities, aged between 15 and 65, were unemployed. Disability and poor health were the most common reasons for not working.
“Fortitude Culina was set up because I realised that there was a lack of career opportunities for the visually impaired and most of them do not have much education. I believe the visually-impaired are just like us. They have passions, they have talent and aspirations. I do believe some of them would love to excel in the culinary arts. So I set up this social enterprise with a few visually impaired people whom I know are keen to learn and excel,” Aaron explains.
Ernawati is one of three chefs that Fortitude Culina has hired. She has only 50% of her vision in both her eyes due to glaucoma. After working for a few years, one thing became apparent to her. “Most of the time, my employer will see my disability first, my capability second,” Ernawati laments as she recalls her past work experiences. “I have worked a few jobs. I was a call centre agent. I did admin jobs and at one point, I was a wardrobe assistant. It didn’t occur to me to have any career advancement because of my handicap,” she says, matter-of-factly.
When she was a child, Erna’s mother got her to help out in the kitchen by cutting and peeling the ingredients. “At first, when I was thirteen, I did not know why she wanted me to do that but, as I got older, I began to understand. All those small tasks that she gave me to do was to help me to be independent in the future and not have to depend on others. My mother has always told me not to use my disability as a reason not to live to the fullest.” Whenever Erna encountered any challenges, it was her mother who taught her to find ways to work around them and “make changes that suit you”.
Today, Erna is confident in the kitchen, so much so that she teaches other visually-impaired people to cook for themselves. Through conducting these workshops, Erna’s confidence grew. When she first started work at Fortitude Culina, she did not think that she would stay for long. But it was the opportunity to contribute to the community that made her stay.
She shares, “I empathise more with them, and I can identify with them. They share the same struggles as me. I enjoy giving cooking lessons because when I see the participants perform a task independently, it makes me so full of joy, rainbows-and-unicorns kind of joy.”
There are unique challenges to running a food business that hires the visually-impaired. “The kitchen is a dynamic and so-called dangerous workspace, especially when it is in full operation. The chef needs to deal with heat and sharp objects like knives,” Aaron says. Pointing to tech-powered tools in his kitchen, Aaron adds, “One of the things that we developed over the last few months is a 3D-printed condiment-holder. We use contrasting colours so that a chef with low vision is able to identify the condiments. We also made it tactile so that they can distinguish the items by touch.” Aaron is most proud of his AI-enabled heat map sensor that will alert the chef of any potential safety hazard.
Building an inclusive workplace may be tough but Aaron knows that a bigger challenge lies ahead. More than a year after it was set up, Fortitude Culina is still in its training and development phase. Its plans to open a café has stalled due to the pandemic. It also lacks the resources to market itself. So the company has decided to embark on a crowdfunding exercise to obtain funds and get its name out there.
“For a young start-up, one of the biggest hurdles is raising capital. Doing that is tough, especially during this pandemic period. So what we hope to do is that, through word of mouth, people will come try our food, and when they love it, they will either be return customers or they will share with their friends that we are a brand that is worth trying and worth buying. So that would help us to generate revenue and to raise capital for expansion,” Aaron says optimistically.
With an eye on profit and another on social impact, Aaron hopes that Fortitude Culina’s business model will help change how people with disabilities are perceived in society and in turn, provide them with more options for work and advancement. It may be a bold vision but one that Aaron hopes others will partake in too.