FROM the outside, it looks like any other eatery, but The Park Cafe does much more than just sell coffee, tea and cakes.
Run by Jamsheed Todiwala, whose father is celebrity chef Cyrus Todiwala, the cafe, which is located in picturesque Victoria Park in east London, handles up to 2,000 punters a day.
Among its customers are homeless people who can get a free tea or coffee, disability groups, and school children who take part in cycling workshops.
“The most important thing for us is the community base,” Jamsheed told Eastern Eye.
“We have a six-year tender here. We wanted to make sure we are not a cafe where someone comes once and then doesn’t come again. We want to build a residential impact.”
The Todiwalas, who run three awardwinning restaurants in London, including Cafe Spice Namaste, Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen and Assado, acquired the cafe in October 2012.
Jamsheed is a freelance designer by profession, having studied Sustainable Product Design at Central St Martins in London. He took over running the cafe in December 2012.
In partnership with his brother Hormuzd, who is an actor, he is launching a new business next year called Mr Todiwala’s Creative. He will be designing furniture for hotels and restaurants and teaching and training underprivileged young people, exconvicts and single mothers.
“It’s going to be a cafe, showroom and a workshop, all housed around part of a government initiative to increase training in the area,” he said.
“At the same time, there will be a community bond as well because it’s based around the unification of the community. You will be served by a 40-year-old single mum or ex-con or a teenager who needs a skill or qualification.
“I grew up in this area and I’ve seen that people don’t value themselves enough. They grow up in a bad environment, but most of them are misunderstood. If you give them a skill or objective, you can watch them flourish.”
Jamsheed lived in India for three years before walking away from a lucrative design contract to return to London.
“I was doing freelance custom design, designing all sorts of things, bespoke furniture and lighting for hotels and restaurants,” he said.
“I gave it up to help my parents run The Park Cafe for the Olympic year. I had no issue making that sacrifice because my parents made a massive sacrifice for me and my brother. They tortured themselves day in and day out in 18-hours shifts to pay for private education and lots of things.
“The greatest respect for my parents came through me working in this industry. I never realised the extreme hardships and stressful life people in this business faced. [It is something] that most customers who come in to buy a coffee and leave will never know.”
He added: “It’s my turn to give back. I’ve never found so much wealth of understanding from working two years in a business that I thought I would never be interested in.”
For Jamsheed, creating a space where the most vulnerable in society can flourish was the inspiration for the cafe. One of the campaigns he supports is called Art for Food, where he gets a local artist to sell their work, with all the proceeds going towards the charity, Action Against Hunger.
“We’ve already made £800 since January this year,” he said.
He also has a Wall of Giving next to the till, which allows anybody to donate money so a homeless stranger can have tea or coffee. It had raised over £1,200 since last December, he said. “We have a lot of homeless people who come in. We look after them, give them free tea or coffee, which they can trade for food.
“People love the Wall of Giving. It’s all donated by people who don’t know who it’s going to. They call it a ‘suspended’ coffee. We save it for someone who is desperate or in need of it.”
Three of his regulars are homeless people who come in five times a week, revealed Jamsheed. One of them is a former producer of the Beatles, who used to work at the Abbey Road Studios.
“He comes in all the time, makes friends with loads of people and he’s so humble.” Jamsheed remains passionate about the industry, but he did have his misgivings.
“Growing up, mum (Pervin) was cooking all the time. Dad cooking was rare but when he did, it used to be awesome. He was a strong role model.
“We had a great palate, but me and my brother weren’t interested in being chefs. You are in one environment, the kitchen, boxed in, for six-seven days a week. When I joined the cafe it was hard, but the frustrations levelled themselves out. I gained from every avenue, every experience. I had to put in extra work in the cafe because the place needed a lot of work to get up to scratch. “But I love what I do now, and I’m passionate about every single aspect of it.
“My parents built this mainframe, now I’m building on it.”