Having a son who is dyslexic was a game changer for Sarjit Singh and his wife, who grew to understand the challenges faced by children who learn differently. When he met Pastor Lee Hock Cheng and learnt about what he was doing to provide employment for differently abled young adults in his church, Sarjit was more than happy to help out with the insights he had acquired in supporting his son.
“In 2011, they were doing consignment work packing straws for Vitagen and takeaway sauce and serviette packs for Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Sarjit says. “But they weren’t earning much, and they had the potential to do much more. I come from an F&B background, and I saw an opportunity for them to get involved in something that would not only be more challenging but more financially fulfilling as well.”
Persatuan Stand — “Stand” is an acronym for skill, talent, acceptance, needs and destiny — was formally established as a social enterprise in 2017, and Sarjit joined Lim as vice-chairman in 2018. A former air steward with stints at cafés and hotels on his résumé, Sarjit — who replaced Lim as chairman last year — was able to steer the organisation’s team in the direction they are headed today, which is food. Specifically, the most comforting and complete of all baked goods: pies.
“Food is not an easy business to be in but it’s an essential one,” Sarjit says. “And for special needs young adults, whose strong points are precision and routine, baking is the perfect thing. There is no space for agak-agak — everything has to be according to the recipe, so this was work that actually played to their strengths.”
Stand Pie Me, a witty play on Ben E King’s 1961 hit song, took off instantly. There were many factors behind this — the pies were priced very competitively, the menu consisted of a variety of sizes for personal consumption as well as family-sized servings, and there were many fillings to choose from, which ran the gamut from typical flavours such as chicken and mushroom to more local varieties like curry chicken and beef rendang. Because we do love our desserts, Sarjit and the team have added apple crumble to the menu.
Stand Pie Me secured its income by providing baked goods to international schools and corporate catering events — this provided the fledgling social enterprise with a steady stream of income in its early months, allowing Sarjit to focus on enhancing the employment experience of its staff, who are aged between 20 and 47.
“It’s not just about the cooking and working in the kitchen,” he says, referring to Stand Pie Me’s facility in OUG Parklane, Kuala Lumpur. “They also get personal coaching and speech therapy. Once a week, we take everyone to a park to get some exercise — sometimes special needs adults require the additional support for their physical fitness needs. We create a complete and wholesome experience for them — our intention is for them to be able to work in a commercial café at some point, so we train them accordingly.”
So far, only one of Stand Pie Me’s employees has left to work in a commercial establishment while the rest remain in the safety of its kitchen. “You need an employer who really has the heart to hire and train someone with special needs. The learning curve is very different from someone who is neuro-typical, and they will need a little more support for the entire length of their employment,” Sarjit notes. He points out that some of them may never be able to cope with the needs of a commercial F&B establishment, making the contribution of organisations such as Persatuan Stand especially important.
At present, Stand Pie Me’s kitchen boasts a staff of 11 differently abled adults. Sarjit personally interviews each candidate, who goes through a two-month probation period. In this time, he can quickly determine what roles would best suit their personality, or if working in a kitchen is even possible at all. “While we would like to give as many people as possible a chance to work, sometimes I really cannot. It’s a kitchen, there are hot stoves and knives everywhere — so we do have to be quite stringent in the hiring process.”
With schools closed last year owing to the Movement Control Order, Stand Pie Me faced its first major hurdle as sales hit zero almost immediately. “We were quiet for the first few months, but that couldn’t go on. We had to go online and reach out to individual buyers. That strategy worked very well because so many people wanted an alternative to cooking at home — so the MCO actually worked to our advantage,” Sarjit laughs. By emphasising its e-commerce presence, the team ended up recouping their losses and made enough to pay their bills and ensure everyone drew a full salary. Today, they break even every month and hope to start making a profit soon. But for that to happen, Sarjit says Stand Pie Me needs to expand.
“The current kitchen is almost at full capacity, production-wise,” he says. “Our team is working at peak capacity right now and they can’t be pushed any further. An additional facility will help us scale production, and I hope to have this in Petaling Jaya, as almost 60% of our orders are from that area. Right now, delivery fees can work out to be quite high and if we can reduce that by making the pies from a location closer to PJ, we can pass those savings on to our customers.” It’s not just about finding a location, though, but one that Persatuan Stand can afford and will suit the unique needs of Stand Pie Me’s employees. This is where the social enterprise will need help, Sarjit adds wearily.
But he remains positive. Once production increases, he has other plans that can kick into gear. For example, one of Stand Pie Me’s post-MCO plans is to open small kiosks in office buildings to cater to the needs of the working crowd. “My idea is to pair one special needs server and one job coach, so they are never alone — it would be too overwhelming in a mall if they are by themselves, which is why we came up with this plan.”
This will require a menu revamp, but Sarjit says that is a decision that cannot be rushed into. “Our guys don’t respond to change easily — what would take a day to learn takes two weeks to master in our kitchen. New flavours are something we are working on, though. For Stand Pie Me, we have to take small steps and perfect each one before we move forward.”
Today, Sarjit’s son is 19 and in automotive college. He is doing well because of the support he received and the opportunities he was in a position to take advantage of. “That’s what I hope for Persatuan Stand as well — that special needs young adults are given the chance to build their self-confidence and dignity and realise their potential in contributing to society. It is what any parent would want for their child.”
Stand Pie Me, D1-0-6, OUG Parklane Shoplots, Jalan 1/152, Taman OUG Parklane, KL. Mon-Fri, 8am-4pm. Order here or call 011 562 83812.
This article first appeared on Mar 15, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.