Can we save local heritage and help the disadvantaged at the same time? Writers Samuel Chin and Jolene Ong visit Singapore’s first ever social enterprise kitchen that aims to do just that.
With the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the world, certain groups have been impacted disproportionately. However, with such challenges come individuals who rise up to meet them. Take for example, Mr Alvin Yapp, who launched Project Makan, which delivered over 130,000 free meals to low-income families during the Circuit Breaker period this year. Now, Mr Yapp is back again, this time co-founding The Social Kitchen (TSK) – Singapore’s first social enterprise cloud kitchen – an enterprise aimed at helping the less fortunate.
The Social Kitchen’s central kitchen and cafe is situated at YMCA @ One Orchard, which is just a stone’s throw away from SMU’s School of Social Sciences and Economics. Mr Alvin Yapp and co-founder, Mr Ang Kian Peng, wanted to create a platform to support and keep local heritage food brands going amidst the pandemic. At the same time, TSK also aims to empower their beneficiaries by actively employing individuals with special needs.
TSK is currently involved in online delivery, takeaway and dine-in at their flagship central kitchen and cafe. They have 9 F&B partners as of now, including Ming Fa Fishball, Gim's Heritage and Long Black.
To find out more, we paid a visit to The Social Kitchen to meet one of its co-founders, Alvin.
As soon as we stepped into the establishment, we were warmly welcomed by Michael, a cheery and hospitable teenager, and Saidah, a relatively quiet but attentive and meticulous woman. We later came to learn that Michael was an individual with special needs, while Saidah was a single mother, and the both of them had great chemistry welcoming guests into the café, perhaps due to their shared desire to ensure the most pleasant experience for their customers.
The Social Kitchen boasts a serene cafe setting with peranakan furniture lining the display shelves, the natural lighting further accentuating its intricate designs. While we marvelled at the Peranakan setting and textile designs adorning the interiors of the cafe, Alvin, with a friendly and free-spirited disposition, rose to introduce himself to us with a firm handshake.
On the origins of TSK, Alvin said: “This idea of a social kitchen was an accidental idea as well. It was, I mean the last thing I wanted to do was to do F&B. And having done F&B for the past one and a half months, it is really the last thing I want to do, but there is this opportunity out there. A lot of charity kitchens are suffering. They don't know how to manage the kitchen and a lot of F&B restaurants out there need our help. At the same time, if we can do good by our beneficiaries. Why not right?”
The staff of TSK are also beneficiaries of this initiative. Not only do they hire groups like single mothers, bi-polar and high-functioning autistic individuals, they also aim to be the largest employer for people with special needs in Singapore.
One of the beneficiaries is Michael, who I remembered to be the cheery man who greeted us earlier. 25 this year, the friendly and diligent man was very attentive to our needs while we were there. Sitting down across the table from us, he enthusiastically described his job scope as, simply “directing the customers, taking orders, serving the order”, but his smile showed it to mean much more. While he felt nervous when he was starting out, the overwhelming support from his colleagues helped him tremendously.
Besides helping individuals like Michael, TSK currently has two growing initiatives. The first of which is “The Peranakan Experience”, which constitutes of a promotional meal set featuring dishes like Ngoh Hiang, Babi Pongtau and others, cooked by a 3rd generation Peranakan (an ethnic group with descendants of Malay and Indonesian heritage) Chef. The second is “A 1000 for a 100” program, which aims to feed 100 bellies with every donation of $1000. The benefit for the latter program is two-fold - one’s choice of a charity’s beneficiary will get 100 meals, and the donation also helps TSK employ the disadvantaged.
Some of the food they offer include The Truffle Cream Chicken pasta ($13.90) and the LB Awesome Beef burger from Long Black. The smooth and not too heavy cream sauce was infused with just the right amount of truffle aroma, which wasn’t too overpowering on the taste buds and goes really well with the linguine pasta. Decent chunks of tender chicken and small slices of mushrooms were also added to take the texture of the dish up a notch!
Meanwhile, the LB Awesome Beef burger ($15.90) from Long Black was savoury, comprising a thick beef patty coupled with mushrooms and tomatoes, and a side of fries and salad. Alvin, with palpable enthusiasm, highlights the fact that it gets sold out pretty quickly!
Having started TSK on August 1st this year, Alvin mentioned the challenges that came alongside with the overall situation caused by COVID-19, such as not being able to set up as many tables as usual or the inability to hold any events.
However, he emphasizes: “The mother of all motivations are the people that we work with.” He also mentioned how TSK is somewhat unique, in that other countries like Japan or Germany may not be able to integrate individuals with special needs as well as TSK does, and by extension, Singapore, possibly due to the lack of meaningful employment and subpar societal treatment for such individuals.
Touching on his future plans, Alvin said: “We hope to open one social kitchen every month. We have two to three in the pipeline.” He also mentioned his view that the model could be tried out overseas to help other countries, especially those mentioned above, to help them better integrate individuals with special needs.
On advice to those looking to venture into social entrepreneurship, he said: “You can’t put the cart before the horse. The basic DNA must be wanting to make a difference in the lives of a certain community. That must come out first. It’s (not any) less tough, in fact it can be tougher from a business point of view. Don’t think that being “Mother Theresa” will save the business. No one owes you a living, in that sense.”
Personally, we found TSK to be a rather commendable effort, especially in helping their beneficiaries integrate more comfortably into their social and working life. TSK undoubtedly provides them with a safe haven to express themselves while also creating opportunities to enable them to have something to identify with and draw value from.
For those looking for a deal, TSK currently has ongoing promotions such as 1-for-1 mains on GrabFood and 1-for-1 dine-in for Burpple Beyond subscribers. Head down to support them at level four of YMCA @ One Orchard - just across the road from SMU’s School of Social Sciences and Economics. With great deals and a purposeful mission served on the same plate, your tastebuds won't be the only thing that benefits when you drop by.