Epic Arts Cafe is a Kampot-based social enterprise that grew from one woman’s wish to provide work opportunities for deaf and disabled people as well as a welcoming and accommodating hang-out for them, particularly deaf students.
Established in 2006, today the Cafe stands as a model for an inclusive working environment within the local community, providing employment for people and raising funds that go towards the other work carried out by the Epic Arts organisation.
“In 2003 Katie Goad who is one of epic arts founder travelled to Cambodia and saw a need for the arts in Kampot to promote disability right,” Epic Arts’ director for Cambodia Onn Sokny tells The Post.
The Arts Cafe is actually just one of three programmes sponsored by Epic Arts, an international NGO based in Cambodia and registered as a charity in the UK since 2003.
“We use the arts as a form of expression and empowerment to bring people with and without disabilities together. We promote the message that every person counts through our inclusive education, community and social enterprise programmes,” Sokny says.
The Arts Cafe has helped trained around 40 workers so far in hospitality and food/beverage service skills in order to staff the cafe and 70 per cent of their workers have a disability.
Lay Noth – one of the staff members at the cafe – started as a student enrolled in Epic Arts’ inclusive arts courses, then after graduating he joined the team at the cafe.
He tells The Post through a sign language translator, Onn Chomrouen, about what he has learned from the organisation and from working at the cafe.
“I joined the NGO back in 2009. I’ve received an education – training in Khmer and English languages – and I’ve also taken dance and performance classes from foreign teachers,” he says.
He was promoted to cafe supervisor in 2018 because, Sokny says, he is a natural leader and a role model for the other hearing impaired students and staff.
“It’s important to be in a workplace where we respect each other whether you can hear or are deaf or have a different disability,” he says, communicating through sign language because he is both deaf and mute.
Noth, 31, not only supervises the cafe, he is also a part time dancer in the performance troupe sponsored by the NGO.
“I’m still a part-time dancer, but at the same time I’ve been working in the cafe for four years. I’ve learned all sorts of practical skills from it, like making cakes or mixing drinks and cooking meals,” Noth says.
Sokny, 39, says with a smile that Noth loves to teach customers sign language and is always making people laugh with his jokes.
Sokny says working at the Epic Arts Cafe for the past 14 years has been a unique experience and she feels that she’s gained a lot of insight and empathy for the challenges faced by those with disabilities.
When asked about how they handle communication in the workplace since many of the employees are deaf she says there’s no added trouble really – they just use three languages: Sign, Khmer and English.
Every member of the staff hired is taught basic sign language for at least one hour per day in order for them to communicate with each other effectively. When they need to engage in a deeper conversation, such as a lengthy meeting, they use a sign language translator who can very fluidly and rapidly turn whatever speech they are hearing into signs.
For customers, the cafe has menus in both English and Khmer along with pictures of each item and you just tick the box next to the things you want to order.
The menus also provide some basic sign language patrons can use to communicate with their server or with other staff. The signs illustrated include asking where the bathroom is, asking for more water and asking for the bill.
The cafe serves breakfast, lunch, cakes and drinks with about 60 per cent of the fare being “foreign” foods and 40 per cent the standard local Cambodian dishes. They also have a nice selection of fresh fruit from Kampot province.
“We discourage the use of plastics as well so everything from our packaging to the straws we use is biodegradable if it is disposable,” Sokny says.
Many patrons, however, aren’t really there for the food. Many come because the cafe is in a great location and it has the perfect atmosphere for studying or working remotely. The internet connection is excellent as well, as an added bonus.
For those who are still hesitant to venture out into places like cafes in light of the ongoing Covid-19 situation, Epic Arts Cafe has their menu listed on Nham24 and by ordering your drinks from them you’re helping to support an NGO that is a champion for people with disabilities in the Kingdom.
Epic Arts Cafe has been in business for 15 years now. Sokny says she is proud that it’s still going strong, but mostly because that means it has been helping to alleviate poverty for people with disabilities that entire time.
The cafe also helps to demonstrate to Cambodians and the world that people with disabilities are able to work effectively at many jobs if they are simply given the opportunity to do so.
“The fact that we can still provide employment for people with disabilities and advocate for their rights, despite our difficult Covid situation makes us grateful. We are proud to see those who are in our programmes growing in skill, confidence and independence as they are able to earn an income to support their families year after year,” she says.
Noth says he is happy to work at Epic Arts Cafe because everyone is friendly, easy to communicate with and they always have each other’s back.
“I want everyone to see each other as fellow human beings, regardless of someone’s race or religion or nationality. People should be valued and seen as creative individuals with unique voices.
“And whenever our cafe is hiring we want any disabled people in need of work to come and apply. We can’t hire every single person, but we can still be a friendly place and a resource for them,” Noth says.
Sokny says that she hopes that anyone who supports what Epic Arts is doing for the disabled with their programmes will consider going out of their way to become patrons of the cafe as the organisation relies on it for much of its funding.
“So I hope everyone, especially local people, will continue to give us their support because it is not just a place to eat, but also a way to address social issues, promote rights and provide employment for people with disabilities.
“And besides, our food is also delicious, top quality, with great service and a perfect location. It’s beneficial for both the customers and our society,” she says.
Epic Arts Cafe is open every day from 7am to 4pm. It is located at #67 Oosaupia Muoy Sovann Sakor in Kampot, south of the Durian roundabout and near the market. Their menu is also available on Nham24.
For those who wish to donate to Epic Arts you can contact them at their Facebook page @everypersoncounts. The cafe itself can be contacted via Facebook page: @EpicArtsCafe.