EnetEnglish.gr, 19:21 Friday 14 March 2014
The cafe of the chosen
An innovative cafe that serves a great menu and optimism
Staffed by people from vulnerable social groups, Cafe Myrtillo (Blueberry) in the Athens district of Neo Iraklio serves as a model of entrepreneurship and, above all, humanity
He's already taken ten orders and Aris Bezos still hasn't taken out a notepad. He doesn't need one. "I remember everything," he says. A few minutes later, he returns with a tray to serve his customers.
"It's Asperger's syndrome that gives us such a great memory," says Nancy. She knows by heart the ingredients to all the recipes prepared in the kitchen. Behind the buffet, Olga is making coffee. There's no need to tell her twice how you take it: she may be deaf, but she's a star at lip-reading. This is the Myrtillo (Blueberry) cafe, a "cafe of the chosen", as its founder calls it.
Here at the cafe, they only employ members of vulnerable social groups: those deemed as "abnormal" by the ignorant. They aren't considered competitive on the open labour market and usually find themselves invisible when they look for work. Their own crisis began long before the country's economic problems: it started on the day of their diagnosis. Most have unconsciously signed a permanent unemployment contract.
In a country that only too frequently looks to the past for solutions, teacher Georgia Vamvounaki-Raffan decided to try something new. She found a premises which had been abandoned for years, opposite Neo Iraklio metro station, in northeastern Athens. She renovated the place and transformed it into a pioneering cafe.
For Olga, Aris, Sofia, Damianos, Nancy, Nick, Emilia and the other employees of the Myrtillo, the cafe's entrance isn't just a threshold to work and education. "It's a threshold to life," says Vamvounaki-Raffan.
"I'm not a businesswoman, and I'm not an economist," she explains. "In fact, I'm usually completely lost when it comes to financial matters. Our fixed monthly costs are €12,000, but first I pay the employees. Nature made them this way. I have a child with learning difficulties who grew up in Scotland and thankfully never went to Greek school. And I don't say that to belittle the schools of our country. I'm a Greek teacher after all; I've worked in public schools."
Vamvounaki-Raffan had the idea for the cafe when she was living in Scotland. "My son did a course in catering and then he worked in a cafe. I saw then how other cultures treat differently abled people, and I said to myself that this is badly needed in Greece.
"The idea would never have got off the drawing broad without the financial support from certain individuals (the Tima charity was a key donor to the premises' renovation). They've asked me not to mention their names."
I sink into the sofa opposite the open kitchen. All the dishes served at the cafe are homemade. The apprentice cooks are kneading bread today. Among them is Emilia Kardara, the group's "environmentalist". "I'm constantly having to turn off the tap for them. You can't just leave the water running and waste it like that," she says. "They look after you better here. I have depression, but I'm treated for it and I'm fine. I have Asperger's too, and that brings along a whole load of problems. It's what makes me so talkative, my friend, and obsessive and compulsive too. But those of us with Asperger's, when we set ourselves the goal of learning something, we do it well"
Although she's 34 and has worked in various jobs for almost a decade, it's the first time that she's had social insurance. "I used to work at Hellenic Aerospace Industry (EAB), where I did work experience for two years. Apart from that, I distributed leaflets, and that was always paid under the table."
"It's hard to get a job, and if you're like us, with special needs, it's even more difficult. It's important to gain experience and confidence. After this, I'll be able to spread my wings," says 23-year-old Sofia Pappas. She's the secretary of the cafe, and is happy that finally "my knowledge isn't going to waste. I studied business administration at a private college."
I watch Olga at work, a 30-year-old with a tattoo on her back. "She could run the whole place by herself" says Vamvounaki-Raffan. She takes orders, makes coffee, serves tables and mans the till. And yet until November, she was unemployed. I talk to her normally, and she reads my lips before signing back her problem with her hands: "Until now, no employer would hire me."
That fact that she is deaf seems to have blinded recruiters. Olga studied decorative arts at Athens Technological Educational Institute and speaks several foreign languages, while at the same time holds a title in women's football.
"What do you do in your spare time?" I ask her. "I bungee-jump," she answers. "The environment here at the cafe gives me the strength to keep going. It helps you gain confidence and experience. What's going on here is very important."
Her dream is one day to open her own jewelry shop. Her eyes constantly scan the room. "I'm have to see if anyone has been forgotten and has fallen into a conversation with the customers," she says.
When Damianos Raffan goes missing from his post, he's probably talking to the customers or going for a wander around the cafes next door. "Everyone's got used to him. He's very sociable," says his mother, laughing. "I'm just a little snappy" adds Damianos.
Unwittingly, he has taken charge of local public relations. He even knows the street vendors by name. I try to work out what is different about him, and then it occurs to me: he's perhaps the only Greek who doesn't want to become a boss.
"My dream is to go and work in another cafe as an employee, as soon as I've gained some experience. Bosses have a lot to think about. I want to finish and be free."
Just sitting in this cafe charges you up with optimism. As you're leaving, the employees give you their best regards and ask you to promise that you won't forget them.
"Goodbye, and bon appetit if you're going for a bite to eat!"
"You must come back in the afternoon, when we have fresh bread!"
"Could you promise right now that you'll come back?"
"If you don't keep your promise, you don't know what'll happen to you!"
Never have I made so many friends in such a short space of time.
Teaching and self-evaluation
"Our goal is for members of the group to understand that they aren't passive objects, to be cared for. So I always try to underline individual responsibility," says Vamvounaki-Raffan. "We all go through a self-assessment process, which includes a questionnaire along the lines of ‘what are your responsibilites?' and ‘are you fulfilling them?'"
As she explains, no one is allowed blame others in the cafe. If a member of staff finds themselves in a fix, they can't pass on the responsibility to someone else.
From their parents, she says, "we only ask for some certificates. We don't let them talk too much, because Greek parents tend always to feel they know best. We work with a qualified scientist, psychotherapist and teacher, Irini Dialechti Kouromichelaki, who makes her own separate assessments.
Part of the training for staff, aside from the work they do at the cafe, is a programme of community engagement. "We're now starting an initiative with children's centres and with the day centres for the elderly, whereby our employees will do voluntary work: they'll make tea for the elderly, they'll read fairytales, they'll take them on walks," explains Vamvounaki-Raffan.
Aris Bezos, a 28-year-old trainee waiter, is excited by the new project. In the past, he has worked in a library in Halandri. He's also eager to join the ten employees who draw a salary. So too is 26-year-old Nikos Sanidas. His friends call him Veropoulos, after the well-known supermarket, because he's responsible for supplying the shop. It was here that Sanidas was first given the responsibility of making a bank transaction. "Before I came to Myrtillo, I just did odd jobs," he says. "Now the whole neighbourhood has got to know me. When I go buying supplies for the cafe, they know who to make the invoice out to."
Alone on the metro
For Nancy Hira, the Myrtillo was the first step to independence. "I'm more responsible, that's for sure," she says. At the age of 23, she has learnt to ride public transport on her own for the first time. "I live near Mt Ymittos; it's far away. I used to come here with my mother. Now that I've got to know the best route, I come on my own. I also take the metro, which I like doing."
"I didn't expect to find the Myrtillo," she continues. "I told myself that I wouldn't find a job. Then Aris, who I knew from the Greek Asperger's society, invited me to his birthday party here. Until then, I had been making handmade candles, but I didn't have time to do many exhibitions. I was upset that I couldn't produce more. I made about 100."
Now Nancy heads the cooking team. "I trained in cooking and confectionary and now I'm training people in the workplace. I'm good at bread. I've had a lot of practise at kneading. We make sweets and other things too. Do you like cupcakes? Do come and try some," she says.
"I have Asperger's, but it doesn't bother me so long as I keep calm," she told me during our conversation. "I've got several techniques to get rid of the anxiety. I always think of it as something inside me. I've loved Asperger's, I haven't hated it. I think it's a mistake not to love something which belongs to you and is a part of your life. You can't say you hate something you've had since you were little, when you know you can't do anything about it. We try not to let the clouds cover us...
- This article originally appeared in Greek in Eleftherotypia on 9 March 2014. It was translated by Constantine Fraser.
Apart from coffee, tea, and soft drinks, Myrtillo serves apple pies, scones (with cheese, sultanas, apricot, blueberry etc), cupcakes, birthday cakes, sandwiches, biscuits, tea cakes, Cretan pancakes with cheese and honey etc. All products are made using organic ingredients. Certain alcoholic drinks such as rakomelo and ouzo are also served.
Myrtillo Café is located at Plateia 28 October 8, Neo Iraklio. Tel 211-012-3176, mobile 6949-112-927 (Cosmote). It also has a Facebook page