Monday, August 21, 2017

Social enterprise offers an escape for Bagan orphans

In Nyaung U, the small town that serves as gateway to the Bagan plains, a handful of trainees are studying the proper way to brew and serve a cappuchino.

The restaurant is a newly renovated former beer garden. Photos: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar TimesThe restaurant is a newly renovated former beer garden. Photos: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar Times

They pore over laminated picture cards and listen intently to their trainer, but these servers are not your typical wait staff – each of them is a disadvantaged youth participating in one of Myanmar’s newest social enterprise restaurants.

Sanon, launched by the Myanmar Youth Development Institute with the help of FRIENDS International, aims to provide orphans and other underprivileged young people a chance to escape their circumstances.

“This is about training 20 disadvantaged youth for 12 months in hospitality and English,” said Jon Amiss, one of the volunteer organisers of the restaurant. “Then getting them a job and monitoring them for a further two years.”

For many of Myanmar’s orphans, this type of attention is rare. In a country with high levels of nepotism, the lack of a family network leaves many of them isolated from the connections that lead to jobs. More than 25 youth applied to work at Sanon, though only two made it through the screening process, which among other requirements seeks applicants without parents or family caregivers and without a university degree.

“If you’re an orphan, the only people you know is other orphans and the people who run the orphanage,” Amiss said. “And they don’t have any commercial contacts.”

MYDI has 15 years of in-country experience, but Sanon is their first restaurant enterprise. With the consultation of FRIENDS international, an NGO that works with scores of successful training restaurants around Asia, Amiss said they hope to work with up to 30 trainees someday.

For now, a few weeks before the restaurant’s soft opening on May 5, their social worker has enlisted six young people into the program. Following a tight schedule, the trainees start each morning with intensive study of restaurant etiquette and the menu, which they are expected to memorise. After a group lunch, everyone studies English and finishes the day with modules on hygiene and kitchen safety.

Amiss pointed to wires poking from the walls near the kitchen, future ports for a touchscreen POS (point-of-sale) system; he believes Sanon is the only training restaurant in Myanmar that will teach its trainees how to use the high-tech system now common in much of the developed world.

“When we first thought about touchscreens,” he said, then paused. “These kids are 17 or 19. I think we ought to teach them touchscreens.”

Sanon will also have cameras installed around the dining area to record the trainees’ performances and create the ability for film study to hone their service techniques.

In addition to their training and English lessons, the children will split tips and eat meals at the restaurant. Nobody takes a wage – neither the volunteers running the operation nor the trainees. Amiss said that’s the only way they can get the restaurant to be self-sustaining and free of the need to apply for grants.

“Because we’re a volunteer group, we don’t get any funding from any of the large aid groups,” he said. “They won’t fund volunteers, only full-paid employees.”

Chef Lin’s fried rice with calamari packs a spicy punch. Chef Lin’s fried rice with calamari packs a spicy punch.

The restaurant will represent one aspect of the Myanmar Tourism Social Enterprise Project, a partnership of several international organisations that aims to boost hospitality-focused social enterprises. In their press release, the effort notes that by 2020 tourism in Myanmar is projected to reach more than 7 million visitors a year. FRIENDS International and its cohorts hopes to channel the influx of people – and money – into responsible and sustainable social enterprises focused on children.

“We want them to do the training and then move out,” said Nikolai Schwartz, a FRIENDS International coordinator. “We do job readiness skills, so they learn how to write a CV. They learn how to go to an interview ... We accompany them in this whole process and even afterwards with regular check-ups.”

The objective, he said, is to stabilise the student and enable him or her to live independently. At LinkAge Restaurant in Yangon, this program is already under way. FRIENDS has been offering consulting help to Khin Hnit Thit Oo, the LinkAge founder, for a year now, helping to implement its modules and improve details such as menu presentation and advertising.

When Sanon opens and begins to turn a profit, those funds will be channelled back into non-training-related social support, such as harm reduction for drug users and reintegration of kids into public schools.

To learn more about the project or to pay a visit and enjoy Chef Lin’s take on Myanmar, Thai and Western cuisines, visit the Sanon Restaurant Facebook page.

Visit Nyaung U on May 5 to see the soft opening of Sanon.