Mahadevan Muthalampet, a philanthropist and former professor, has transformed thousands of lives through ‘charity cafes’, where he trains single mothers, people with disabilities, inmates, burn victims, and the poor in earning a better livelihood.
In 1979, when Mahadevan Muthalampet was a night manager at Hotel Sudarshan in Chennai, he made a promise to himself — one day, he would help people who, like him, were struggling to make ends meet.
Today, 43 years later, Mahadevan has opened 11 charity cafes in Chennai that offer employment to people from low-income backgrounds, persons with disabilities, and more.
“My struggles of juggling two jobs — in the restaurant by night and as a professor of commerce and accounting by day — changed the way I saw things. I told myself that when and if the day came when I had enough resources, I would help people who needed a break,” he recalls, in conversation with The Better India.
The waiting game came to an end when Mahadevan rose to the top and his venture Hot Breads, which he started in 1989 after quitting his job as a professor, became a roaring success. True to his promise, he opened the Winners Bakery in 2005 in Alwarpet, with help from the Corporation of Chennai and the Madras Rotary Club. While the bakery was started with the intention of giving school dropouts a chance to work, it started offering employment to the destitute, single mothers, and burn victims along the way.
The success Mahadevan tasted through this cafe gave him the boost he needed to start his other ventures. The will to give back to society formed the crux of all his choices.
“I understood the value of imparting skills to people so they could build a career,” says the philanthropist who started investing at the age of 60 and used all the profits at 65 to open the charity cafes.
‘The skills I impart will stay forever’
These charity cafes come under Chennai Mission, a registered charitable trust founded by Mahadevan in 2006. The NGO attempts to execute an eclectic mix of business and charitable initiatives.
“Winners Bakery taught me about how the sustainable model could change lives,” says Mahadevan, who takes care of the equipment, technical know-how and the investment at these centres.
Once the employees, who include people with autism and mental disabilities, as well as those from poor backgrounds, are well versed and trained, Mahadevan gives them the reins to carry on independently.
He says his idea is also to ensure that despite these being charity cafes, the standard of food and service is impeccable. “People shouldn’t for a moment think that a charity cafe means lower quality.”
Among the 11 centres that span across Chennai is R’vive Cafe, which has two branches. One employs people from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), while the other branch trains single mothers. Another cafe, Museum Kanteen, gives burn victims and persons with disabilities a chance to work.
Sankalp Cafe was started to train children with autism to perfect their baking skills. Mahadevan and his team have also started a centre in Sevalaya NGO for people to build their skills. Another such centre is Eddie’s Pop Corn, which is run by the children from the Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu (SPASTN) — a school for children with disabilities.
While some centres are focused on giving marginalised communities a chance to shine, others cater to those struggling to build their lives due to circumstances.
Sudar Bakery was one such venture started by Mahadevan’s group, and is now run by the Franciscan Missionary of Mary. The group of nuns gives single mothers a chance to start anew.
“Whether a woman is suffering due to an alcoholic husband or had a husband who passed away, or whatever the reason may be, she is welcome here,” says Mahadevan, adding that the women engage in sewing, candle making, cookie making, etc, to earn income. These items are later sold at schools and colleges.
There is also Eat Right — a food court that had burn survivors running a pizza unit, while Give Life Cafe employs students of Loyola College who are below the poverty line and looking to earn money to pay their tuition fees.
Freedom Bakery inside the premises of Puzhal Prison offers more than 3,000 inmates a chance to build their skills through bread making. The bread is then given to Government hospitals.
On‐the‐job training is given at these centres and the products are made under the supervision of experienced chefs. As day to day expenses are met with the money made by selling the products, the models are self-sustaining.
The minimum stipend given to the employees is Rs 6,000 a month, while those who complete six months and join the centre permanently are given an income of Rs 12,500, including food and accommodation.
Parimala, a burn victim who has been working at Winners Bakery for seven years now, says the job has helped her be more independent. “As a burn victim,” she says, “it was difficult to survive in society. But now after having undergone training, I can stand on my own feet.”
Another such employee of R’vive Cafe, Thulasi, says that working here and building her skills has not only helped her get an income and put her life together but has also helped her children have a stable life.
After years of empowering people through these models, for Mahadevan, the true taste of success is when a trainee gets a job. “Some of them have become entrepreneurs owning bakeries too,” he adds.
The plan was not without its set of challenges. Retaining trainees is one of them. This entrepreneur speaks of how burn victims come with a lot of family issues. “We had recruited around 18 trainees six years ago and now have around 11 with us. This is because we could not keep the work and their personal tragedies balanced in a proper manner.”
The sustainable models are a cycle of good. The demand from the units contributes to the upkeep of the respective centres. When there is an excess of income, it is put into building better lives for the poor.
For Mahadevan, the buck doesn’t stop here. “Retirement is not about hanging up your boots,” he says, adding that he will go on opening such centres until he is 70, and maybe even beyond.
Presently, he is on his way to open the 12th centre in Trivandrum, a cafe for the NGO Banyan, which caters to people with mental health issues.
Looking back at his journey of a decade, he says he still has miles to go. His advice to other entrepreneurs is “You do not necessarily have to open a cafe to give back to society. People can be entrepreneurs in their own fields and find ways of helping those who aren’t as fortunate.”
“All you need to do is start.”
(Edited by Divya Sethu)