A HUGE thanks to Payal from Cafe Spice for contributing to this blog!
My Journey Begins
When Café Spice proposed to donate to the Whole Planet Foundation, I decided to take the trip to Kerala with the group. The WPF asked if I’d like to blog about the visit, and I agreed right away. Blogging would be a great way to offer a glimpse into the lives of the women in Kerala, the direct beneficiaries of the Foundation’s microcredit loans.
The only trouble – I’ve never blogged before! I called my best friend, Kiran, an amazing avid blogger and started taking notes. She promised to help me through, so I took a deep breath and relaxed. “Be yourself and share your experiences,” she said. Then laughed and added, “In an interesting way!”
Let me begin with a little background about our company, Café Spice. My in laws have been in the food business for over 40 years, starting with a spice company to owning one of New York city’s finest Indian restaurant. From fine dining to Café Spice quick service restaurants, building a centralized kitchen, and preparing fresh ready to eat global cuisine, our company’s mission has remained true to its roots of bringing Ethnic (primarily Indian) cuisines into the mainstream to be enjoyed by varied palates. My father in law, Sushil (Dad) is the visionary and my mother in law, Lata (Mom), is the constant reminder that good quality food has no substitution.
My in laws managed to produce a fitting off spring – Sameer, my husband! When we got married 8 years ago, I quickly realized his involvement was more than a son partaking in a family business; it was an innate passion. Sameer’s love for family translated into us living at home in a joint family, while his love for work translated into to the nonstop badgering emails he sends all of us at Café Spice!
So how did this journey really begin? A long story…Café Spice’s relationship and partnership with Whole Foods Market began when Columbus Circle opened and announced a full time Indian hot bar. Needless to say, we had to see this! We just started working out of a centralized kitchen to standardize the food in our Café Spice locations – economies of scale meant using the best ingredients and making the highest quality food affordable.
Dad tasted the Indian food at Columbus circle, and was very disappointed. He found a chef managing the hot bar and shared his opinion. An insulted chef asked him who made him the authority on quality standards and Indian cuisine. His answer must’ve been convincing because the next day two Whole Foods Market team members were inspecting our facility and tasting our food.
From ONE to now being in over 150 Whole Foods Market stores, we grew from a 5,000 square foot kitchen to 50,000 square feet. We hand make all the food – a rarity amongst commercial kitchens – and, although that leads to a few deviances, the love that we cook with definitely comes through. Mom is our taste tester who has us all anxious to hear if the food is to her liking. I have to say, we mostly pass with flying colors!
A few months ago, Sameer told me he wanted the company to “give back” by supporting the Whole Planet Foundation. I was thrilled! He shared the news with the Café Spice family and everyone was on board. Diwali, the Indian Lunar New Year, falls in October this year, so we thought it would be great to start the New Year with a donation to the foundation. What followed was truly amazing! We received tremendous support and enthusiasm from the coordinators and team members in the regions we supply – a true testament to Whole Foods’ Core Values. The support made us feel more than “just a supplier;” this was going to be a joint effort. We were immediately pointed in the right direction, and given the resources to make this a wonderful experience of giving.
The next thing I knew, Sameer, Shilpa (our sales manager), and I were sitting with Joy and Lauren of the Whole Planet Foundation and making this a reality. Their passion for the Whole Planet Foundation resonated with me right away. When Joy told me about the upcoming trip to India, I knew right then, I had to go! I wanted to do more than give a percentage of our sales. I wanted to meet these women, hear their stories, give them hugs, and see what else we could do to help.
HERE I AM – Incredible India!
It’s 1:20 AM in Mumbai, and I have finally landed! The smell of the wet sand brings back childhood memories.
I was born and raised in Japan, but spent every summer in India. My aunt would take me to do “seva” (selfless service) by “feeding the poor”. The people in need would all sit in a row while we would serve them a hot meal – something they probably received only once a week.
I’d come back from India and the seva would continue, but in a very different way. In Japan, we would sing at the old peoples homes or go play with the mentally and physically disabled. Money wasn’t the shortage here; it was time from loved ones.
My parents would donate money regularly to orphanages or other charitable organizations for the economically disadvantaged. They taught me to be thankful and never waste food on my plate. “There are so many children who don’t get food,” my mother would say.
From an early age, I realized that everywhere there is a need, but the poverty coupled with the lack of clean water, shelter, and food, were the beginning of dire circumstances in India. More than 37% of India’s 1.35 billion people live below the poverty line. If you calculate these numbers, I assure you, you won’t believe what you come up with.
So, on this trip, I am happy that we at Café Spice, through the help of Whole Foods Market and the Whole Planet Foundation, can be part of eradicating poverty slowly but surely. I picked up Muhammad Yunus’ book, Banker to the Poor, prior to my trip and got through about 100 pages on the flight. I hope to finish it soon to learn a little bit more about Micro credit lending before I reach Kerala.
Right now, I’m exhausted, and ready to turn the lights off! I have an early morning flight to Pune to see my family before heading to Kerala. For now, Good Night…
Meeting the Microcredit Clients
After two great days with my relatives, I met with the other Whole Foods Market suppliers in Mumbai and headed to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. Kerala welcomed us with beautiful weather, beaches, coconut trees…and a statewide strike! Our tour guide, Jairaj, explained that “Gandhism” in Kerala prevailed, and the peaceful strike was for the high price of gas. I don’t think anyone of us could comprehend the idea of a strike, but it was actually much better than people protesting or rioting – everything was just closed. We spent the rest of the day at the hotel and at dinner were engaged by photos of the amazing playground built by Whole Foods Market’s team members at the Sunrise Valley orphanage in Tamil Nadu.
8:30 AM the next morning, our day in Trivandrum began at a local outdoor food market. Nowadays, there are plenty of modern grocery stores in India, but the charm of an Indian outdoor market is not to be missed. We took pictures and walked around capturing the unique setting. From there, we headed to meet the women microcredit clients at Peringmala village…my purpose for coming on this trip – I was so excited!
We reached the village and were greeted by Mr. Sanu, the bank manager of MIG (Microcredit Initiative of Grameen). He had a contagious smile, great aura, and an even more inspiring story. As a computer software engineer and graduate from a popular college in Tamil Nadu, his first job paid him 40,000 rupees ($810) a month – a high salary. I asked Mr. Sanu what led him to become the bank branch manager for MIG and his answer was very simple. He hated what he was doing, so when he saw an ad for a “Bank Branch Manager” (sounds glamorous, doesn’t it??), he applied right away and was thrilled when he got the job. What’s amazing though, is Mr. Sanu took the salary cut (from 40,000 to 7,000 rupees) fully understanding he wasn’t going to be sitting in a cushy office with air conditioning. Instead, he would be visiting villages, rain or shine, and collecting money from women who were trying to lift their families out of poverty. His goal for the upcoming year – to lend to 4,000 more women, reaching a total of 10,000 clients. I figured that being two years into it, managing 77 centers and 3 branches, he must be close to his old salary. I pried a little more and he finally told me I was a bit off…actually, half off! I admired Mr. Sanu’s compassion and his path to fulfill a deeper purpose.
In the Indian culture you often address another woman as sister and in Malyalam (the language spoken in Kerala), you say, “chechi”. Mr. Sanu had organized for us to sit in on an actual weekly center meeting. The chechis were impeccably dressed – saris neatly tied, hair back in braids, and a smile on every face. They gifted each of us with flowers and served hot tea with cookies. Their hospitality and warmth was incredible. During the meeting, we mingled with the chechis and asked them the many questions we had. Were they happy? Were their husbands supportive? Have the loans helped them? Have their living conditions improved? I’m happy to say that all the answers I heard were positive. The chechis were happy, their husbands were supportive of the extra income, and their lives had gotten better since they became entrepreneurial. Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India (nearly 95 percent) and these women, too, had studied at least up to the 10th grade. The loans coupled with the fact that they were educated helped them tremendously.
The main trades in Peringmala were weaving and selling goats’ milk. One of the women told us how her goat had delivered two kids, hence stopped giving milk. She didn’t seem worried though; the other four women in her group “had her back” through this time which would pass soon. We witnessed a sense of community and sisterhood – a strong bond which apparently they never had before.
After the meeting, we were invited into several homes to see their businesses. We saw how they made beautiful Kerala saris and dhotis (South Indian style men’s pants) using the hand looms. Each piece took a day or more to complete and were sold to the city shopkeepers. The money was enough to pay back the loan and still make a profit. At MIG, the loans were to be paid back in 46 weeks, and in Peringmala the payback rate was 100 percent. Only after paying back the loan, could the women take another loan. The average loans were fairly small – the first year was 5,500 rupees ($112), the second year 8,000 rupees ($164), and the third year 11,500 rupees ($235).
Quite honestly, I wasn’t expecting the warm welcome we received. I didn’t know if the women would share their stories or even want us in their homes. I have to say this experience was unlike any other. The women we met were strong, smart, and motivated. They may not know it, but they taught me to believe that any goal is attainable and anything is possible. After all, how many of them would have fathomed their lives after marriage would include running a business? Regardless of their financial status, the prevailing spirit in Peringmala was not one of despair, but rather energizing hopefulness. Each woman I met had a more gleaming smile than the next – celebrating life rather than taking it for granted. I was honored to be on this mission with Whole Planet Foundation, humbled by the industrious women we met, and thrilled that Cafe Spice can play a role in making a difference!