Charlie’s Cafe powers on by paying it forward

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KUALA LUMPUR: A year and a half down the road, Charlie’s Cafe is still going strong with their Pay It Forward meals initiative, though the cafe has learned to, in the words of its founder and owner Desonny Tuzan, “manage expectations.”

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The cafe, which opened in May in Taman Bukit Desa, here, last year, has become famous for its Pay It Forward meals initiative, which allows customers to buy meals for the needy. Customers can pay from RM5 to RM15 to pin receipts to the cafe’s Pay It Forward wall, which those in need can walk in and use as meal vouchers.

The initiative has taken off since, with the cafe having worked with numerous volunteers and organisations to bring food to the homeless at a greater scale.

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“Last Christmas, (there was an event where) we hosted a hundred people a night for two nights,” Desonny told FMT at his cafe recently.

“They were children and adults from our friends on the street. We worked with NGOs, and even had buses bringing them in which were paid for by some friends of mine. In fact, this video (about the event) was nicely edited by a customer. He read about us in The Star and offered to contribute,” Desonny said as he pulled up a video on his mobile phone.

According to the 42-year-old Sabahan Dusun, the cafe employs two kitchen staff, who work with him and his 36-year-old wife, Debra Leong. The cafe is especially famous for its cheesecake, tom yam, nasi lemak, Sarawak laksa, curry mee and chicken chop dishes.

One of the cafe’s unique attractions is its creamy D24 durian soft-serve ice cream which has received rave reviews from customers. The cafe will also soon serve a Sabahan speciality, Hinava, a dish made with fish, chilies and lime amongst others.

However, as willing as Desonny is to help, there are those who bring what he charitably calls “unique requests”, which he tries his best to balance against the cafe’s need to survive with its day-to-day business.

“Some have started demanding for sandwiches and burgers. I said: Cannot-lah, how-lah? I open at 8am, and will have some 150 buns to cut (if I say yes). Some have had unique requests, such as asking us to pack the food in a special lunchbox. We did that once or twice,” Desonny said.

The unique requests, Desonny said, are usually made by larger companies for their CSR initiatives, which he tries his best to fulfil.

How it works is that these groups and/or organisations bring groups of people in need to be fed by the cafe’s Pay It Forward vouchers, which in some cases cannot cover the requests made.

“Some even complained that our food was dry, that we had no gravy. That was challenging. What do I do if I cannot meet the demand? Some asked for kuih-muih (Malay cakes), so I had to buy them. The meals (in this case) already cost only around RM5 each. How to afford?”

Despite all of this, Desonny never turns down requests, gamely giving each request a go at least twice.

“I never turn anybody down until giving it a go at least twice. Until I have to say ‘eh, ini sudah lebih-lah’ (‘This is too much.’),” he said, laughing.

“It can be challenging at times – sometimes they ask for the food to be ready at really early times – but I apologise and say that I cannot. 8am is much too early. I tell them: I want to, but if I cannot run my shop, how then can I afford to serve you?

“I have learned to say no and manage expectations after one and a half years.”

Smaller groups, Desonny has noticed, are less demanding and easier to work with. He pointed to a group of young adults calling themselves the Robin Hood Army that regularly makes inroads into the poor and needy community.

“They asked me: ‘Uncle Sonny, this Saturday I’m going to teach the poor in Cheras, can you provide me food?” I said yes, I can give you chicken – which they turned down, and say that they only want rice and noodles. Simple stuff. They bring their pots for food, they tell me that they don’t want it to be complicated.”

“They send us pictures (of their work), which we then post on Facebook. For them it is more about meeting needs. Sometimes this is more satisfying,” Desonny said with a smile.