PETALING JAYA: Located in Shah Alam, Selangor, is a three-in-one café, training facility and vocational centre unlike any other.
Seven Tea One, also known as Kitchen For Good, was founded in August 2018. The social enterprise and eatery specialises in fair-trade tea, cookies, and artisanal goods such as soaps and wallets, but with a noteworthy selling point – all its products are made by the differently abled.
Unlike other profit-driven businesses, Seven Tea One started with one purpose in mind: to empower the disabled, those on the autism spectrum, and single mothers with autistic children, through training and employment.
“Our whole purpose is to train them so they are able to get a job and become independent,” owner-director Lai Chong Haur tells FMT, adding that the goal is to ease the burden on those with special-needs children.
“We prioritise employing differently abled youths from B40 families because we want to financially empower them,” he says.
After working in human resources for the past 20 years, Lai decided it was time to give back to society.
“As the head of HR, it was hard to turn a blind eye to the difficulties the differently abled encounter when entering the job market,” the 51-year-old reflects.
“Employers prefer to hire the able-bodied. Those on the autism spectrum, and the disabled, are seen as liabilities.”
Lai set out to change such mindsets and prejudices. To date, Seven Tea One has employed 18 differently abled youths with mild to severe autism.
All it takes is patience and expertise to help these young adults stand on their own two feet, he says.
“It’s an uphill journey but we are getting there one person at a time. The training helps them do the work we pay them for, which in turn allows them to earn a dignified income for their families.”
In 2020, Seven Tea One moved from its original premises in Subang Jaya to its current location in Setia Alam, where it has three centres on three separate premises.
The first comprises the café and a kitchen, where all the employees, aged 17 to 26, start work at 10am and do everything from baking to processing tea.
Their workday officially ends at 5pm but not before they spend two to three hours at the second centre, where they undergo a different sort of training: with an in-house occupational therapist and special-needs teacher, both of whom have over 30 years of experience in their respective fields.
As the youths need to be fully prepared to join the workforce, the hours during which they undergo this training are also counted as labour, and they are paid accordingly.
‘A social impact’
Lai shares that despite Seven Tea One’s focus on empowering the underprivileged, families from other income brackets have reached out to them from time to time, which proved to be a blessing during the pandemic.
Because of Covid-19, “we had to look to other sources of income to keep the business running, as the last thing we wanted to do was close up shop”, he explains.
So he came up with a new plan: families outside the B40 bracket were invited to send their differently abled teens to be trained, and to gain work experience, for a fee of RM550 a month.
This has allowed Lai to sustain the business while continuing with his goal of ensuring that those with special needs are prepared to enter the workforce.
And with the current easing of restrictions, Lai plans to open the third centre where halal-certified products will be made on a larger scale, potentially allowing the enterprise to tap into other sources of income such as international trade.
“I believe we will one day be able to employ even more underprivileged and differently abled youths,” Lai says. “I want us to be taken seriously – for people to view Seven Tea One as a business that makes a social impact.”
To find out more about Seven Tea One’s initiatives or to purchase its products, click here.
Seven Tea One
41-GF, Jalan Setia Perdana BE
U13/BE, Setia Alam
40170 Shah Alam, Selangor
Business hours: 9.30am-6pm (closed on Sundays)