Making a difference doesn’t always require coming up with a completely novel idea. After all, if there’s untapped potential to make significant impact, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel; or, as a Turk might say, amerika’yı ikinci kez keşfetme: don’t rediscover America. This is manifested in the success and impact of Vefa Demirkıran, who founded the Down Cafe brand and model. After a long, long drive through the beautifully expansive plains and stark mountains in Turkey’s southwest, we met him over a restoring breakfast at the Down Cafe in Ereğli district, Konya province.
The reason we were at Down Cafe was not so much for the food (though it was quite good); we were there because of who serves the food, works with meal preparation, cleans and maintains the restaurant, and handles the logistics of the operation (ordering, etcetera). Except for a few individuals, Down Cafe is staffed entirely by individuals with Down syndrome or other mental illnesses. Of course, you wouldn’t know it from the service, food quality, or the cleanliness recognition awarded to the restaurant by the local government, but that’s just the point; Down Cafe serves as a face-to-face testament to the abilities of individuals with mild-to-moderate Down syndrome.
The concept of employing individuals with Down syndrome in a restaurant or cafe setting is not brand new. It certainly wasn’t an original idea of Vefa Bey; when he opened the first Down Cafe in Şişli (a neighborhood in İstanbul) in 2009, there were six other restaurants or cafes in Turkey that made a point of employing individuals with Down syndrome. What makes Vefa Bey’s brand different is evident in the following statistic: Down Cafe is not only still around, but expanding, while four of those six have since closed or are likely to do so soon.
Much of what makes the difference between the Down Cafe and other similar ventures is Vefa Bey’s attitude toward the venture and his ability to cultivate and work connections. For instance, before opening the first Down Cafe, he thought carefully about how to name and brand the concept, so as to be the most successful not only in terms of attracting customers, but in receiving support from both Turkish and international sources. Along the same line, he told us plainly that in managing the venture, he keeps in mind his belief that “if this [Down Cafe] is a business, it’ll be run like a real business” [translation paraphrase]. This mindset is important when considering that Vefa Bey believes what’s important is not so much the idea, but being able to sustain the idea.
Vefa Bey hasn’t only sustained Down Cafe; he’s helped it thrive. In addition to the original cafe in Şişli and the İstanbul Down Cafe food truck that soon followed, we were sitting at the Ereğli location (where Vefa Bey grew up, and moved back to to raise his children), and there are plans coming close to fruition for opening a branch in the city of Konya with the warm, strong support of the local government. The local government has been one of the stakeholders with which Vefa Bey cultivated a mutually beneficial connection, and a strong one at that, evidenced by the District Governor of Ereğli’s presence at our table. Vefa Bey explained that various policies and initiatives put in place by the local government have created exceptional opportunities for individuals with disabilities, such as classifying those workers at Down Cafe with disabilities as belonging to a protected work environment, which means that half of their salary is subsidized by the government. The District Governor explained his vision to make Ereğli a model city for people with disabilities, in terms of both services and accessibility, but also opportunities for full-inclusion and involvement in society, epitomized by Down Cafe. Seeing and hearing the local government’s genuine enthusiasm (and the District Governor’s long personal support), and learning about Vefa Bey’s contact with the Sabancı Foundation and others, it’s clear that Down Cafe is being well “sustained,” to say the least.
At the end of the day, though, its social impact alone makes Down Cafe a social venture worth sustaining. The testimonies from some of the waitstaff and explanations about societal challenges faced by individuals with Down syndrome gives the best insight into this impact. With few exceptions like the Down Cafe, there are very few opportunities in Turkey for individuals with Down syndrome following their completion or aging-out of high school. Vefa Bey characterized it by saying that the various institutions involved acted as though the lives of these people was over after age 18; after high school, they would end up being confined to their parents’ house, hesitant to go outside to join the rest of society – especially never alone – for fear of the ridicule that would accompany their visit to a public place. Compounding this was the perception that people with Down syndrome need help (believing they are incapable of doing much of anything on their own); yet, there was animosity because of their receiving help in the form of disability compensation from the government. As Hakan, one of our waiters, said, he was being insulted regularly by neighbors for receiving money from the government without working.
“Now, I am working; I am earning my own money,” Hakan says proudly [translation paraphrase]. He uses his salary to help support his mother; he hopes to buy a house soon. Eser, another waiter, wants to spread the impact; he hopes to be selected for a municipal position in which he would advise with respect to and be able to aid people with disabilities. Eser also added that if Down Cafe didn’t exist, he’d hope to create some sort of network or federation to allow individuals with similar disabilities to share with each other and provide mutual support. Hearing from Vefa Bey’s wife, we learned that the self-confidence of those who work at Down cafe has improved remarkably. It was the situation that they wouldn’t go in to public alone. Recently, a few of the workers (and friends) went down to a nearby mall alone, enjoyed tea in public, and paid with their own money.
Certainly much of this transition has to do with increases in the individuals’ self confidence; it feels good to make one’s own money, and to know that one is serving a productive role in society. Part of the transition, though, is related to changes in the local society’s perception of Down syndrome and individuals affected by it. Down Cafe has changed the attitude of many in the community about Down syndrome and people with Down syndrome. As one of the most clear examples, after being featured in prominent advertisements for Down Cafe, one of the workers has become the hero of his village.
Sustaining is not always an important goal for every social venture. Indeed, some believe that there’s a definite (and short) shelf-life to their idea, or believe that being continually in the “start-up” phase is beneficial. With so much real impact already, though – changing the lives of individuals, affecting society’s perception, inspiring government to go even further to help – and such promise for even more impact in the future, Down Cafe is certainly an idea worth sustaining.