The Restaurant That Just Doesn‰Ûªt Turn Job Seekers Away‹ÛÛ

This social enterprise goes out of its way to hire disadvantaged Malays.


When 20-year-old Nur Izzati* was afflicted with a medical problem that forced her to drop out of school, she went into one of the most depressing phases she can remember.

It was not the first time she had been bogged down by her poor health. The second-year ITE student’s struggle with multiple exostoses, an excruciating, lifelong condition caused by bone tumours, denies her the privilege of a smooth education. It also stands between her and any job that demands some degree of mobility.

But she has gone past this hurdle. Today, Izzati is a part-time kitchen crew member in Sandwich Heaven, a food joint that serves up job openings to vulnerable segments of the Malay community. Her work shifts are short and sporadic, and it takes 45 minutes to travel to the Bedok outlet from home. “It’s so much better than cooping up at home. That drives me nuts.”

Although she does not mind the commute, she is also all too aware about the lack of opportunities elsewhere.

Answering a need

Set up in 2012, Sandwich Heaven is a social enterprise with a non-judgmental hiring practice. It opens its doors to youths-at-risk, the “chronically” unemployed, the physically- and intellectually-challenged, the low-income and ex-offenders. Along with its sister restaurant Chicken Heaven, it functions as an arm of Majlis Pusat, a Malay-Muslim community advocacy group.

Zakaria Abdul Gapor, Majlis Pusat’s secretary-general, takes pride in the fact that he does not turn any needy Malay job seekers away. And he does this for good reason – even though the tide of income growth has uplifted Singapore as a whole since the 1980s, the benefits enjoyed have been uneven among the different races. A recent study by the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) concluded that Malay unemployment rates have been persistently higher than the national average. Malay Singaporeans’ lack of social capital, according to a study by the National University of Singapore (NUS), also means that unemployed Malay individuals face more challenges in their job search.

Initiatives like Sandwich Heaven answer this need for more Malay-targeted economic support from the non-profit sector.

“We try to accommodate the large number of walk-in candidates. We try to find a role, a job, for everyone,” Zakaria stressed. Majlis Pusat aims to employ 50 full-time staff and 100 part-time beneficiaries in all spinoff outlets within the next two to three years.

“We find a job for everyone”

Because Sandwich Heaven is so focused on employing and retaining its beneficiaries, this leads to a staff size that is larger than required. A result of this is that there is less workload to go around, and that each team member gets to adopt a shorter and more flexible shift cycle. Like many of her colleagues, Izzati only works a little more than five hours per week.

Sandwich Heaven’s hiring practice is unique that way, because most companies adjust the size of their staff according to the amount of work that needs to be done. But Sandwich Heaven does the exact opposite – it specifically creates jobs so that it can be shared among job seekers.

Its reason for turning this hiring norm on its head? To give disadvantaged Malays employment opportunities that can value-add to their work experience, no matter what it takes.

In many ways, this hiring philosophy has helped Siti Aishah move towards greener pastures. After graduating from Northlight School, an academy for students who have difficulties handling the mainstream curriculum, the soft-spoken 19-year-old had been unable to secure a job elsewhere due to her timidity.

Said Zakaria, “When I first brought her in, she had very low self-esteem.  She barely had the courage to answer the phone or take our customers’ orders. The fact that she couldn’t speak much English didn’t help.”

Having worked here for the 10th month running, Aishah now takes a daily four-hour shift as a cashier. She still fumbles with conversations in English, but she is no longer terrified of leaving her comfort zone. The amount of effort she has put into gaining interpersonal skills may be intangible to people who take theirs for granted, but Aishah knows how far she has come. “I feel braver,” she said with quiet firmness.

Success & growth

But a social enterprise can never be just about creating social good. To remain sustainable, it has to address both its social and commercial interests, which is why the team behind Sandwich Heaven takes product quality and service excellence seriously. Their restaurants make it a point to serve affordable sandwiches with a distinctive Eastern-European influence that keep its patrons coming back.

Such is its success that Majlis Pusat has recently launched a Tampines outlet named Afghanistan Restaurant with a similar hiring concept. This will be their third branch in less than two years.

Despite the chain’s relatively rapid growth, the reality is that taking on excess labour also results in a stretched payroll. Sandwich Heaven’s liberal hiring policy has forced the management to cap the wages at S$5 to S$5.50 per hour due to budget constraints.

This is hardly an issue for many of its employees, though. Despite having to make do with the thinner paycheck that comes with a shorter shift cycle, Izzati has no qualms about working at the food joint before heading back to school and continuing her filmmaking studies.

What binds Izzati to the place are the co-workers, most of whom have troubled backgrounds in some way, and whom she calls family. “They were the ones who stayed by me when I was hospitalised on my birthday. We get through our own personal hardships by helping others through theirs. That means a lot to me.”

* As of presstime, Izzati has left Sandwich Heaven.

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