How a quaint Goan café empowers neurodivergent adults

The Owl Café is an initiative of The Owl House, a community service centre, which upskills and provides livelihood opportunities to people with special needs. The café has built a loyal clientele and is raising awareness about neurodiversity

Aruna Raghuram
New Update

Goa's The Owl Café is run by neurodivergent people

If you are walking down the quiet lanes of Aldona, a small village in Goa, you may spot a beautiful Portuguese-style bungalow amid greenery that houses a quaint café. The Owl Café has a loyal clientele who come as much for the good food as to chat with the staff. 

The Owl Café is Goa’s first café run by a group of ten neurodivergent adults, aged between 18 and 43. ‘Neurodivergent’ is a term to describe people whose brains develop or work differently from others for some reason. They have different strengths and struggles from other people. Some have specific conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Down syndrome, sensory processing disorder, social anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

The café is an initiative of The Owl House, a community service centre in Goa that was founded in 2018 by Pria Sule. Says Renuka Figueiredo, director and founding team member of the centre: “My co-director Pria dropped out of a programme on special education because she found it too corrective. The programme’s objective was to make neurodivergent people ‘appropriate’ and ‘normal’ as opposed to helping them live the best life they could. Pria then decided to set up The Owl House.” 

Shreya working on plating a salad (left); Srutesh, Sharmad & Sahil (Right to Left) are at work. Pic: The Owl Cafe

Focus on strengths

At The Owl Café, which was set up in October 2023, the focus is on coping, acceptance and acknowledgement of the distinctive strengths of each individual. 

The vision is to empower individuals with special needs to integrate with society by skilling them and providing work opportunities. This way, they can lead more productive and meaningful lives. 

Renuka recollects her first exposure to the discrimination and isolation faced by neurodivergent people when she was eight years old. “There was a boy with autism in my catechism class. For a religious ceremony, we had to walk down the aisle of the church. No one was willing to walk down the aisle with this boy. The teacher asked me to do so, and I agreed. That incident stuck in my mind. We are still friends,” she says. 

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The 29-year-old went on to study MSc in clinical psychology and fell in love with the subject. She joined The Owl House soon after that. “We started as a therapy centre but evolved into an education and upskilling centre. We believe that everyone can learn with the right support and help,” she says with conviction. 

Why the café was set up

The objectives of setting up The Owl Cafe were two-fold. “We wanted to generate income and livelihoods for the students of the centre. The second objective was advocacy. We wanted to sensitise people and raise awareness about neurodiversity,” says Renuka. 

The cafe and adjoining store, which sells food items and handicrafts made by the students of The Owl House, are a result of the surroundings. Goa is a tourist-dependent state with cafes and stores at every nook. Also, food is a universally reinforcing concept, says Renuka. Perhaps, the neurodivergent adults would not have adjusted to a noisy, crowded environment. But The Owl Café is a small, not-so-busy place, and the founders want to keep it that way.   

Srutesh and Prajit posing at the entrance of The Owl Café. Pic: The Owl Café

“The cafe’s staff faces social anxiety and verbal communication issues. Sixty per cent of our students are on the autism spectrum.” 

The café has made simple variations. “We segregate jobs to ensure that those more comfortable with people work as servers and at the front desk. Others work behind the scenes in the kitchen,” she says. 

“We also talk to each new customer and explain that our staff has special needs. This makes the environment more accommodating for our staff. We have found that the customers are mindful and empathetic,” she adds.   

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Skilling programmes

The Owl House provides training in culinary skills, gardening (ornamental plants and vegetables), arts and handicrafts, cafe management and store management. 

The culinary skills programme equips the students (who are now working in the café as staff) to follow verbal instructions to prepare a variety of dishes step by step, set up and clean the kitchen, use kitchen equipment like knives, graters and stoves safely, and finally, plate and present the food well. 

In the café management programme, students are taught how to make the restaurant space look attractive, set the tables, greet customers, take orders accurately (with the help of laminated menu cards on which customers can write their choices using a marker) and announce when meals are ready. 

Customer interactions are practised through role-plays with teachers. An app with a simple user interface is used for billing.

Eusebio dicing bell pepper (left); Tessel trying a new recipe for Buffalo Cauliflower (right). Pic: The Owl Café

Varied fare

The menu includes the usual café fare – cold beverages, coffee and some exotic teas, salads, sandwiches and desserts. The pesto pasta and gochujang (Korean style) chicken strips are favourites. One of the beverages – blue pea tea is a huge hit, says Renuka.  

The cafe supplies desserts to two restaurants in Goa. They make cakes on order. At the store, they sell basil pesto and chilly garlic oil, meat and mushroom relish products, and a range of sauces. The plan is to expand the product range of edible products made by the students. 

The café hosts special events for festivals. The store supplies culinary products for pop-up events. The café also creates 50-item menus that customers can pre-order if they are hosting a party. 

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A chef with a hotel management background heads the kitchen. 

The neurodivergent staff cook, they don’t just assist. 

Facilitators help the staff in all activities. The staff needs to be prompted at times to move from one activity to another. There are checklists for the staff made using images – put out the chairs, wipe the tables, wash and wipe the cutlery, and other activities. The time taken by the staff to do a task has shrunk from 45 minutes to 20 minutes, says an elated Renuka.

Pork burger; cake with lemon curd filling and A Christmas hamper curated by the students

Overall impact 

At The Owl House, the relationship with students is lifelong. The centre provides placement, when possible, and reskilling opportunities whenever needed. It has had over 100 students so far. On a regular basis, the centre works with 50-plus students.   

The staff earn between Rs 6,000-8,000 a month depending on how long they work. Most employees work for four to five hours a day. “Salary time is very exciting. Once I found a cafe staffer looking at the calendar and counting the days till he would get his salary! Another employee, Srutesh Kerkar, has a visual impairment. He was so happy that he could pay his mother’s medical bills one month,” says Renuka. 

In some families, the café staff are earning as much as neurotypical siblings or as much as the pension their parents are getting. This is very empowering for them and starts interesting conversations in their families, she adds. 

Sahil Khatib, who works at the café, is on the autism spectrum. He finds it difficult to sit idle and needs to be kept constantly busy. His mother Rosha Khatib has this to say: “My son Sahil has been with The Owl House since 2021. I have seen so much improvement in him in the last three years. He enjoys being there and is also learning new things – culinary skills, gardening, personal development, and others. All this will help him grow and become independent in the future. The facilitators are highly committed towards the cause of helping out individuals with special needs.” 

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Owl House students in an upbeat mood

Building confidence

Working at the café and earning their own money has made the staff gain confidence. They now feel self-worth. They also feel empowered to use their own money for what they want to do – attend a show or buy a phone. As an activity, cooking is therapeutic as well. It stimulates creativity and requires attention to detail, improving focus and concentration. 

“The Owl House plays a big role in my life. It has been a very good experience. It has taught me health and self-care techniques. I have learnt singing, dancing, acting, art and sports at the centre. I have also learnt from listening to the experiences of others,” says Srutesh who works at the café.

There have been constraining factors in this inspiring journey. “The work is emotionally draining. You are changing the way you interact as an adult when you interact with people with special needs. Staff attrition has been a concern for us in terms of the facilitators. Some students display aggressive behaviour and there are tense situations at times. Transport is an issue as the centre is not accessible by public transport,” says Renuka. 

Also Read: Echoes SOS: This Delhi café employs speech & hearing-impaired people 

How is the venture funded? 

“We have one primary donor who wishes to remain anonymous. He owns the premises where the centre and café are located and funds a large part of the operations.”

Also, it receives CSR funds. “This year we raised 50 percent of our funds through CSR. We are yet to reach break-even point but are generating enough revenue to give stipends to the staff,” she says. 

Future plans 

Expanding the team of facilitators and students is on the cards, as there is a significant waiting list of students who want to join The Owl House. As such the courses are subsidised but the centre wants to reach out to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds.   

There is also a plan to launch a fellowship programme for individuals interested in working with Special Educational Needs (SEN) students. Another long-term project being planned with neighbouring schools is an exchange programme. This initiative will allow neurotypical students to visit The Owl House, exchange skills, and form friendships with the students. It’s an effort to promote understanding and inclusivity among children. 

(Aruna Raghuram is a freelance journalist based in Ahmedabad. She writes on women’s issues, environment, DEI issues, and social/development enterprises.)

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