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Karnataka's popular Mitti Cafe chain, manned entirely by disabled staff, set to expand to other cities

Launched in 2017, Mitti Café, managed and run exclusively by people with disabilities, has earned quite a name for itself. There are now eight cafes in Bengaluru and Hubli and founder Alina Alam has plans to take the café to other metros.

From greeting customers, to taking orders and handling the cash register, Keerti keeps a busy schedule at the one of the many Mitti Café outlets in Bengaluru. Born with a physical disability, Keerthi is from an economically underprivileged background. She spent many years looking for a job with little success.

Things changed in 2017 when she walked into a newly opened Mitti Café outlet to apply for a job. Keerthi thought she would get rejected as usual, Instead she was hired as the first employee of the café. "I like coming here and meeting people and talking to them, says the 22-year-old. "People talk to me so nicely and we meet different kinds of people and feel a part of everything, which is so great.

It is this sense of confidence and inclusion that Mitti Café founder Alina Alam was looking to build when she launched the chain. Today there are eight Mitti cafes in Bengaluru and Hubli, all of them completely run and managed by people with different types of disabilities, ranging from visual, hearing and developmental.

"Throughout school and in college, I was fortunate to be around people with disabilities, so this was something very close to my heart, says Alina, who was 23 years old at the time she launched the café. "Inclusion was not a distant issue for me but the people I had access to were educated and did well for themselves. I was inspired by their journey, how despite their disabilities, they overlooked the daily struggles and made their everyday normal.

The trigger

It was during an internship at the Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled in Bengaluru when Alina realised the struggle people with disabilities face in finding employment.

While working with the Samarthanam Trust, I met people with disabilities who were struggling to find jobs. I discovered the many problems people with disabilities face - the lack of skilling opportunities and the low awareness levels in the ecosystem. It led me to think of starting something that would connect disabled people to the larger world. - Alina Alam, Founder, Mitti Café

Alina opened the first branch of Mitti Café in August 2017 at the Deshpande Foundation at the B.V.B. College of Engineering and Technology campus in Hubli. This was mainly with the help of crowdfunded money. Over the next few years, she set up seven more, mainly within corporate spaces.

The food served at the cafes is a mix of hot and cold drinks along with north Indian, south Indian and Chinese cuisine. All the employees undergo a three-month paid internship before they are offered permanent jobs. The cafes have menus in braille and posters with basic sign language gestures so customers can engage with hearing impaired employees.

"Our approach towards candidates with intellectual disabilities is different from those with physical disabilities, explains Alina. The screening process for the former is different, more vibrant involving song and dance. The training model has been designed with organisations keeping the specific disabilities in mind.

Alina says she was not sure whether her venture would work at first. "This was an experiment but the likelihood of it working out was strong as I believed in the people I worked with. The challenge was engaging them in a set up like this.

One of more recent Mitti Café outlets in Bengaluru is at the Electronics City headquarters of Infosys Limited. Aruna Newton, Head, Diversity and Inclusion at Infosys, was instrumental in setting it up.

"We have 200 plus food options here and one of the biggest challenges is to attract customers every day. Mitti Café manages to do that on a consistent basis because of the high quality of food and service. Newton says that Mitti Café stands tall amidst all the branded food outlets. "They hold their own very well. They set their bars high and have exceeded that. It is heartening to see them do so well.

Alina credits the success to her team and says it is their dedication and commitment that has enabled Mitti Café to spread its wings and grow so quickly in such a short span of time. The success has encouraged her to look at initiating chapters in Mumbai, Hyderabad and New Delhi.

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