By Loh Lin (19A01D), Alyssa Marie Loo (19A13A) and Liu Enqi (19A01C)
Rumours have been going around: “There’s a new cafe where the old Manna Cafe was? And there’s Gong Cha?!” We at Raffles Press have set out to investigate this new Professor Brawn cafe, and we bring you this exclusive scoop before you see the cafe for yourself when it opens on 2nd July. We cover their special cause for special needs, their rumoured Gong Cha, and last but not least, their food.
What’s this about an ‘inclusive workforce’?
If you take a look at the blackboard outside the cafe, it is subtitled “served by an inclusive workforce”, then further footnoted with the hashtags “#supportinclusion” and “#celebrateAbilities”. More than just a cafe, Professor Brawn cafe is a social enterprise under the Autism Resource Centre (ARC). The Autism Resource Centre is a non-profit charity that, among other things, trains people with special needs for employment. Claudia, a volunteer staff at Professor Brawn, told us that “3-4 (people) are [non-special needs] staff, but the rest are staff with special needs. Those wearing hats have special needs, including our dishwashing staff!”
How did this start?
“They really have talent, and we must try to unlock that talent. All of them can do things, (we) just need to find the key to help them do it well.” – Mr Roland Tay, founder of Professor Brawn
The seeds of this social enterprise were sown by Mr Roland Tay, who started the establishment 9 years ago before donating it to ARC last year. He reflected that “[he] decided [the enterprise] needed to grow” but “it was hard to run it individually”. He had previously responded to requests to create job opportunities for individuals with special needs, but found that the existing frameworks were “not sustainable”, and decided to “quit the corporate world” to focus on developing a model that would provide sufficient support for special needs employees. “It’s much more meaningful work than just making money,” he mused.
When asked why he created such an enterprise, Mr Tay smiled and admitted candidly: “My son is autistic. It all began with him.” His son continues to be a part of the cafe: the adorable animal artwork across the back of the chairs were painstakingly inked by Mr Tay’s son, an artist under the Animal Project.
“This is an autism-friendly working environment.”
All of Professor Brawn’s staff are trained in managing people with autism. Yet, “autism-friendly working environment” also refers to how every single part of the cafe is designed with its special needs staff at heart.
Upon your first visit, you might be confused with its rigid 4-step ordering system. It directs all customers to walk anti-clockwise around the central counter, past the row of food servers, and end with cashless payment at the cashiers– even if all you wanted was a cup of Gong Cha. This roundabout system may seem like an inconvenience, especially in how you need to take out a NETS or Ez-Link card just to pay for a $2.70 drink.
However, Amanda, a staff at the cafe, explained that the “the step by step (system) is because [the special needs staff] understand more visual (instructions) and structure than verbal (instructions)”. This comfort in a predictable structure was echoed by Mr Tay, who recounted that in the past, “a customer who came in (…) wanted something not in the menu. (…) The (special needs) staff was quite adamant (against it) and the customer got angry.”
When asked about the cashless payment system, Joyce, the manager, laughed that “it’s a trend thing”. However, the writers at Raffles Press hypothesise that it is also to make processing payment easier for the special needs staff, as we noticed the cashier also had special needs.
The gorgeous decor and branding of the cafe, as well as the neat staff uniform, are all intentional as well. Mr Victor Ong, creative director of the ARC, explained that “why we’re very particular about design…is dignity, that’s the key word.”
“Being different doesn’t mean you are any less,” Mr Ong emphasised.
And is there really Gong Cha?
Yes, yes there is! We saw it with our own eyes! The Gong Cha menu consists of its healthier choice line, with 6 drinks ranging from Milk Foam Oolong Tea to a sweetly refreshing Mango Green Tea. When we approached a Gong Cha staff, Jun Yi, about this revised menu, he told us that they “[pushed] this (the smaller menu) out so [students will] be more aware of the healthier line that [Gong Cha] has”. Indeed, who says making healthier dietary choices has to be entirely painful? (Though perhaps to the dismay of some bubble tea lovers, the drinks are served without pearls.)
Why did Gong Cha decide to open an arm under Professor Brawn though? When asked, Jun Yi revealed that Mr Kang Puay Seng, CEO of Gongcha, is actually involved with Pathlight School as its School Management Committee Chairman. Hence Mr Kang was approached by the cafe for a collaboration to provide job opportunities tmo individuals with special needs. The Gong Cha staff are presently imparting the process of preparing the drinks to the trainers at the cafe, who will then teach the special needs staff to prepare Gong Cha drinks.
“Proceeds from this all go to [Autism Resource Centre]… it’s sort of a social project that we’re partnering [with the cafe on],” said Jun Yi.
How’s the food?
Professor Brawn definitely doesn’t let its social cause act as a discount for its food quality. As Mr Tay said, “If your food is not good then they might come back for the social cause once or twice, but if the food is good then they will really come back to support you. And that’s how we’ve survived for 9 years; it’s quite a long time for a F&B joint.”
Professor Brawn serves an impressive variety of Western food. Offering a range of burgers, salads, pastas and even grilled chicken, almost all of its dishes are affordable at sub-$5. The cafe is also thoughtful in including many vegetarian choices: Vegetarian Spaghetti at $2.50, a Veggie Burger at $3.20, soups, as well as Garden Salad and Caesar Salad.
More uniquely however, the cafe prides itself on preparing all of its own food, from their burger patties right down to each of its salad sauces. Claudia, the volunteer staff at Professor Brawn, told us that the staff report at 7am every day to prepare the food, and stay back after closing time to prepare for the next day as well.
“There’s no processed meat. We don’t buy straight from suppliers, our chefs actually make our patties,” said Alice, a staff at Professor Brawn.
“The soup starts from the vegetables too: mushroom soup starts from mushroom, tomato soup is from fresh tomatoes,” proudly beamed another staff member, Amanda.
Professor Brawn’s earnest effort in using authentic ingredients certainly does translate into quality food; Professor Brawn kindly offered us the whole range of their menu for us to sample, and our taste-testers could taste the difference. Lee Yi Faye (19S03L) described the mashed potatoes as tasting “very healthy.”
“I feel like I’m eating an actual potato”, she added, as compared to the powder-mix mashed potato that other eateries serve. Isaac Yeo (19S06A) commented that the Chicken Mushroom Wrap had “the natural flavour of the mushroom.”
It turns out that their handmade beef patties are well-worth their salt (and seasoning) as well. “The beef…falls apart in your mouth and it’s (really) juicy, it’s really good!” gushed Rachelle Marie Chua (19A01B) as she nodded aggressively in approval and awe, a half-eaten burger in hand. “The sauce kind of evenly coats the thing, and every bite is flavourful. ‘JUICY’, that’s the word.”
In the vegetarian field, the cafe has not left any loose threads either. One of our writers tried all their options available, including their mushroom and tomato soups, immediately gushing about it after she’d taken the first sip. Their other options don’t disappoint either: the grilled vegetables were just the right texture, soft yet not overly mushy, with a hint of charred flavour. The Garden Salad dressing was a novelty because it had a sort of burnt, cloying sweetness, yet it successfully complemented the fresh leaves and the zesty taste of the fried enoki mushrooms.
Indeed, all of the dishes we tried were not only hearty and delicious, but healthy as well.
Where is Professor Brawn going from here?
Although Professor Brawn used to have an external outlet in Novena, RI is the first school that Professor Brawn has opened on-campus. Ms Jacelyn Lim reaffirmed that they “want to standardise the model and bring this to another school”, in order to create more job opportunities for individuals with special needs. Mr Tay “hopes this will also give other schools something to look at so they will be able to see that it works, and want this type of thing in their school also.”
Indeed, Professor Brawn is part of the growing movement towards building an inclusive society. Starting from even within our school campus, we can take the initiative to understand more about people with special needs, and be more empathetic towards the struggles they face. As RI Boarding Tutor Mr Gilbert Chng remarked, “this is something I think the school should stand behind and it’s a good example for the school to follow. Empathy is something we should train in the nation’s best and brightest”.
“People think of special needs as what they can’t do, rather than their abilities. All of them have strengths, but not all of them are as neurotypical.” – Jacelyn Lim, Executive Director of Autism Resource Centre
Raffles Press earnestly hopes that students will give Professor Brawn their fullest support in this pioneering venture. Professor Brawn is located where the old Manna cafe was (near Pick-up Point 4, visible from the main gate.) They will be opening on 2nd July.