He Used To Live On The Streets Of Mumbai. Now, His Cafe Welcomes Everyone
The Bombay to Barcelona Library Cafe sits on one side of a noisy street in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Mumbai, India, not far from the city's swanky new international airport.
Wedged in a block with a clinic and a hardware store, this modest-sized cafe has only four tables. There's an open kitchen with bar stools at the counter and a small library at the back, with books donated by patrons. The walls are orange, and some repurposed aluminum kettle lamps and tea glass lamp shades give the room a warm and earthy tone. Outside, there's a little patio with a couple of benches, and a bright green awning that stands out against the gloomy gray of the concrete structures around it.
This ordinary-looking cafe is on an extraordinary mission — to be inclusive. In a country where cafes are used exclusively by the growing middle class, this cafe has opened its doors to people from all walks of life — from cab and rickshaw drivers and street kids to the average office worker. Anyone who can't afford a $2 cup of coffee, often the cheapest item in an average Indian cafe, can find something tasty and affordable here.
A cup of tea on the patio costs only 10 rupees (15 U.S. cents), the same as at any roadside tea stall. The rest of the menu is limited but wholesome: sandwiches, quiche, tortillas, tapas. There is also dessert, bonbons and coffees.
The cafe is a labor of love for proprietor Amin Sheikh, who spent his early childhood on the streets of Mumbai, where food was key to survival but hard to come by. The cafe's servers are also former street children.
The son of a domestic worker, Sheikh was 5 years old when he ran away from home and his job at a tea shop. For three years, he scavenged for scraps in garbage bins and begged for food or money in trains and stations. He eventually found his way to an orphanage called Snehasadan, where meals were regular but basic, and the best dessert was "whatever candy cost the least" in stores outside, he recalls.
Today, Sheikh is also a book author and a successful tour operator, but success didn't come easily. He dropped out after seventh grade and learned to drive, eventually finding employment as the chauffeur and Man Friday of a well-to-do man.
"When I was a driver, I never had money to have a coffee at one of the [Indian] cafes," he says. "In that much money, I could get a full chicken meal and a tea. I don't understand why a cup of coffee is that expensive — has it got gold in it? Has it come from the moon? Everyone deserves to go somewhere nice."
In 2002, he bought his own car and started giving guided tours of the city. The next year, he had the opportunity to visit clients and friends in Spain and saw a different world. "In Spain, I saw everyone has the same coffee at the same coffee shop and it costs them all the same," he says. "With one euro, a shoeshine boy or a manager can have the very best coffee. Nobody told me you cannot sit here, go somewhere else." It was a revelation.
Because Indian society is much more stratified and class-conscious. "If I had gone to a coffee shop, this is how high society would think: 'What is this bloody driver doing here?'" says Sheikh. "But this bloody driver is also human."
He decided to create a place for drivers like him and other ordinary people. "Why not a basic place for basic people? Without spelling it out, you can give someone dignity without preaching about it." And he realized he could close the loop by employing kids from his orphanage.
For seven years, Sheikh put aside money, even writing and publishing an autobiography in 2012. Twelve thousand copies and eight language editions later he says, "Whatever money I made from selling my book at churches, traffic signals, talks has gone into this café."
Affordability and dignity aren't Sheikh's only goals. Quality is high on his agenda, too.
"I could use crap ingredients, I could parcel out diabetes and heart disease without a problem, but I want quality," Sheikh says. "I want the ingredients to be nutritious."
So instead of cutting corners and using the cheap, local hydrogenated baking chocolate, he's using Belgian chocolate from Europe. But he's working on sourcing other organic ingredients, including milk, locally.
And while he's at it, why not introduce his customers to some foreign foods, too? "In Spain, everyone knows some Indian food," he says. "Everybody knows chicken tikka, so why shouldn't kids here know tortillas and Spanish cookies?"
The cafe's cookies are divine — crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The recipe comes from Figueres, a small town in Catalonia, just outside Barcelona, Spain. A couple — Carlos and Maria Antonia Pereze, who run a restaurant — had read his book and they were moved by his story. When they contacted Sheikh and learned that he was ready to start his dream cafe, they took three weeks off to come help him start up.
The night I visited the cafe was the Perezes' last in town. Carlos was pulling a batch of cookies from the oven while overseeing the making of more batter. Maria Antonia was going over checklists at a table. Later that evening, after their last guests had finished their cake and left, the staff and volunteers gathered together. Over the four-way multi-lingual conversation — English, Catalan, Hindi (official government language of India) and Marathi (Mumbai's local language) — there were last-minute instructions, reminders and hugs. The couple's affection for the cafe staff shone through.
Anil Kurup, the cafe's baker, is an alum of Snehasadan, the same orphanage that Sheikh grew up in. Trained in the bakery section of a big hotel chain on Sheikh's urging a few years ago, Kurup has now added tortillas and cookies to his repertoire under the Perezes' tutelage. "When I was growing up, I never dreamed that I'd get to eat any of this, let alone make it," he says.
Business at the cafe is still picking up, but Sheikh is OK with that. He tells his staff that all good things take time.
"See, I don't want to be a business," Sheikh says. "I want to get people to be human beings."
Amir, 12, and his cousin Mehran, 11, live in the neighborhood and are on their fourth visit in three days. They sit on a bench on the patio, enjoying their Spanish hot chocolate, smacking their lips between sips.
"I like the experience," says Mehran. "And the hot chocolate, the cookies, the books." His cousin Amir is excited because "Uncle (Sheikh) told us there will be comics and kids' books, too."
The boys are delighted that there's a nice place they can afford. Their monthly allowance is about $11 each, but with a cup of hot chocolate priced at 60 cents, they can enjoy some of the treats here. They tell me they've peeped into fancy coffee shops before, but this is the first one they've been to. That access, and the contented smiles on their faces, is just what Sheikh is aiming for.
Correction Sept. 6, 2016
A previous version of this story misidentified Hindi as the national language of India. It is the official language of India's government.