“No one should go hungry.”
Charlie’s Cafe in Taman Desa has built itself quite the reputation – its signature fried chicken chop is a thing of beauty, and has made its rounds on social media.
“We came up with the grilled version of our chicken chop because people wanted a healthier option, but if you ask me? I think it’s nicer if fried! [laughs]”
The cafe is the brainchild of Desonny Tuzan (or Sonny), who recalls its origins and purpose, “I’m familiar with the food service industry for the last 20-plus years, so this was the natural progression, but it was also wanting to be able to help, build and support the community. We are a family business that is also a social enterprise.”
Sonny’s idea and motivation for pairing eatery and social enterprise came from his own personal experience feeding the poor. “I followed people to provide food for the poor, and it is really heartwarming to be able to see them to eat food without paying. Some will say that it’s their choice, but I don’t think so. If we reach out to them – meet them where they are, then perhaps they might join us – who knows? We just need to train, empower and take care of them.”
We’ll get to the “social enterprise” portion in a bit, but first, a short paragraph on the food.
Aside from its trademark fried poultry, there are also its homemade soft serve that is made with REAL DURIAN (I will never eat durian any other way), Sarawak laksa, and pastries (done by Sonny’s wife, Debra) that embody the mantra of “once you pop, you can’t stop”. Everything on the menu is just that good, and the generous servings don’t break the bank either, making Charlie’s Cafe a boon for urbanites with big appetites.
However, that’s just one aspect of Charlie’s Cafe reputation; the other is its “Pay it Forward” wall, where customers can help the less fortunate.
Here, I’ll get head honcho Sonny to brief you on how it works.
“Customers get an option to contribute RM5, which gets them a voucher. We use that RM5 to prepare meals and send them to people who will then provide to street friends. Our consistent partner right now is Robin Hood Army. They pick up food from us every alternate Monday, and they send it out.”
Thanks to a constant supply of receipts from generous contributors, the establishment gets to stretch its reach. Aside from sending food out, Charlie’s Cafe also hosts people to have a meal.
“We also occasionally host people to come have meals here – people from orphanages, shelters and all that. So at least they have a place where come and makan.”
Sonny feels very strongly about feeding the less fortunate, even going so far as to say, “It is wrong to be in the food business yet see people get hungry.”
However, this benevolent cafe isn’t just about feeding the community. It is also about empowering it, through providing jobs. “We provide jobs to those looking for a second chance, or who think they want to rejoin society. If they want to join the F&B industry, we will let them try… Organisations have also helped by connecting us to people who are looking for work – it’s work therapy.”
If possible, Sonny also purchases his ingredients from Orang Asli – another form of empowerment. “They gather their crops, and whenever they are able to sell, we help buy it off them. If it’s too much for our use, we get friends to buy from them.”
A Cafe-City-Nation Ambition
According to Sonny, Charlie’s can also be a platform for nation-building. He recalls an event with The Rojak Projek . “It’s a platform where East and West Malaysians can connect… Charlie’s Cafe must be a vehicle to make Malaysia better.”
Many have asked about Sonny’s decision to start in Taman Desa rather than the city center. His answer is simple and practical, if a bit unfortunate: Rent.
“Because of our location, we don’t have homeless people coming, but people will ask why we don’t open in the city center – we can’t afford the rent! If we can’t afford rent, we cannot help.”
Manpower is another key issue – finding those who fit in is simple; finding those who fit in and are able to capture Charlie’s Cafe’s vision is another thing altogether.
“Quite a handful of people have joined us, but not many can fit into the role. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle; the one we have is a blessing. The few who have been with us use this as a platform to regain their bearings – they earn some money, then they move on.”
Interestingly enough, having new manpower also diversified the menu. A recent addition into the menu is Chinese dishes, thanks to a new hire.
“We have someone who’s here for four or five months, and we’re happy to have him! He’s very helpful to the operation, as he’s an experienced chef with Chinese cuisine. So that’s why our menu now has local and familiar flavours added to it.”
Rental and manpower issues aside, Sonny does aspire to start a branch in the city center, with its easier access to the working crowd. Think of it as aspiring to “make it big in the city”.
“We want to expand to the KL area, where we can serve the office and coffee crowd, as well as serve visitors to KL on the weekends. At the city center, we can provide food for the homeless as well. We’re ready to go, we’re just waiting for the right moment… We want to look ahead – to prepare a team for the next outlet. We will build and train people, gearing towards expansion.”
So if you’re around Taman Desa, or if you frequent the Seputeh KTM station, take a yummy detour and stop by Charlie’s. Just be warned: once you pop, you really, really can’t stop.
This story is part of an ongoing collaboration with Charlie’s Cafe to showcase the different aspects of the social enterprise F&B outlet.
Opens: 11am – 10pm (Monday – Saturday)
Closed on Sundays
29, Jalan Bukit Desa 5
Taman Bukit Desa
58100 Kuala Lumpur