While working at Citibank’s MG Road office in Kochi, Minu Pauline noticed that eateries for office-goers in the area hadn’t considered single-portion meals.
“They’d offer a dish of full chicken curry, for instance, but that’s too much for a single person who had just stepped out of office for a quick lunch,” says Minu, who quit her bank job after four years and set up Pappadavada in the same area, offering Rs 55 plates offering just enough servings of curry, rice and roti for one person that they could stand and eat.
A few years later, her restaurant was famous not just for its innovative concept, but also for another unlikely reason: its refrigerator called ‘tree of goodness’, which Minu keeps outside the restaurant stocked with leftovers, for the poor and hungry to take for free.
Vivacious and generous by nature, Minu was brought up in a typical middle-class Malayali Christian family. Her father worked at Kochi Port, and her mother – who looks startlingly young even today, and whom Minu calls her ‘Santoor mom’ referencing an old soap advertisement – as a teacher trainer.
Minu started working at 17 and was hired by Citibank soon after graduation. Two major events happened in 2013: she married her boyfriend, Amal, and started her own restaurant catering to office-goers.
Though tiny in size, the restaurant quickly became a favourite of its patrons. But the coming of the Kochi Metro meant that that she had to shut down and move to another location.
She chose a 1000 sq ft location in Kaloor with “proper seating and air conditioning”. She continued to offer plated single meals, now at Rs 70, and her restaurant once again became popular with office-goers from nearby buildings.
But keeping pre-cooked food ready for any amount of guests at any time meant that Minu ended up with a lot of leftovers at the end of the day – the food was fresh and edible but could not be used at the restaurant the next day.
It was a lesson she’d learnt while at MG Road. “We serve a fixed amount of food on plantain leaves – rice and four curries. Many people leave behind a sizeable amount on their plates,” she says. Minu didn’t have the heart to throw away all that good food.
So, while inaugurating her Kaloor outlet, she set up a fridge outside and decided to keep leftovers in it for the poor to take away for free.
The concept was a hit from day one. Whatever Minu kept in the fridge was eagerly picked up. “People ask me, why is your fridge empty? Because the food is gone in just half an hour after we keep it!”
Not only the beggars and street children, even struggling college students or underpaid office-goers sometimes come by at night and take away a packet or two. “It doesn’t matter to me who eats it, as long as it isn’t wasted,” shrugs Minu, whose son will be four this year.
The concept caught on in other parts of Kerala and the 30-year-old was invited to inaugurate a fridge at another restaurant in Thalassery. A church in Kochi also replicated the idea.
Pappadavada is frequently featured in the media and her 15 employees are proud of their workplace. Just goes to show that giving is, in fact, a great way to make a living.
This is part one of the ‘Cafe with a Cause’ series first published in the July 2018 issue of eShe magazine