Steps with Theera: A Bangkok Coffee Shop with a Difference

Steps with Theera

A Bangkok Coffee Shop with a Difference

By Tanya Perdikou

Originally published in Global Living Magazine – Spring 2017 Issue

Tucked away down a side street in downtown Bangkok is a café. From the outside, Steps with Theera looks like any other hip, modern little café in the city. But what goes on inside goes far beyond the average coffee joint.

Steps with Theera is Thailand’s first social enterprise providing vocational training to adults with learning disabilities. It was opened in October 2016 by U.K. expat Max Simpson, 30, and her Thai partner Theera Hotrakitya, a pastry chef. Downstairs it’s a café serving nutritious, lovingly prepared food and drinks. Upstairs is a center providing a U.K.-accredited training scheme to adults aged 14 plus, who also spend time in the café preparing food and serving customers to gain skills for the workplace.

I arrive at Steps with Theera on a humid Friday morning. It’s a calm, light space, all greens and greys, with fresh flowers and pale wooden furniture. Max welcomes me warmly, mop in hand. She’s tired after a late night and an early morning for a fundraising event the night before. It was worth it though – the money raised will go towards expansion of the Steps with Theera program.

“Bangkok was never the intention. We just kind of found each other,” says Max when I ask her how she ended up in this city, thousands of miles from where she grew up in Manchester, England. During a six-month trip to Southeast Asia, she saw a job advertised at an international special needs school in Bangkok. She applied on a whim, having previously trained in special needs. She was interviewed and offered the job, suddenly finding herself with two days to find somewhere to live in the city.

“It was the best decision ever,” she grins. “I mean, when I first got here it was scary. Super, super scary. I was in the supermarket with two friends I was traveling with and we were buying stuff for the flat and it suddenly hit me – oh my God I live here, what am I doing?! But it’s easy to fall in love with Bangkok. I like how you can walk down the street and go past a slum, and then there’s a Starbucks, and then a market. It’s an interesting mix.”

Max started taking her older students for work experience at Theera, Bangkok’s first gluten-free café down the road. Theera (nicknamed Uang), whose son was at Max’s school, opened the café due to her son’s gluten allergy, a common condition in people with autism.

“Because Uang’s son has autism, she was really into what I was trying to do. He is only nine, but she’s well aware that when he is older, there are no options for him.”

What Uang didn’t realize was that Max had bigger plans outside work experience at the café. It wasn’t until they got together that she revealed her idea for a café-come-training center. Uang worried about funding, but Max was insistent. She quit her job and they started crowdfunding. “Everywhere I was going and talking to people about it they were like yes, yes yes. The support was there. So it didn’t feel like we were doing something crazy; it felt like it was needed.”

Max checks her watch – soon she has to accompany Nicky, a 20-year-old trainee, to his coding class. Nicky tells me that, along with coding and working the café, he produces the Steps with Theera blog and newsletter, and manages Instagram. So trainees aren’t just here to learn how to be baristas then? “No,” says Max:

“It would be a lot simpler for me to train them just to serve coffee. But if they don’t want to do that, why should they have to? That’s typically what happens in Thailand; with arts and crafts, they make things and sell them in the community. It’s great to involve them but it’s not really what they’re passionate about. Nobody’s ever asked them what they’re passionate about.”

Instead Max has set about forging links with local businesses, eight of which have signed up so far to be trained on how best to employ people with special needs. When the trainees complete the Steps program, these businesses will offer them work, ranging from hospitality and catering industries to woodworking, office staff, designers and architects. “I’m trying to create a really diverse mix so these guys have the opportunity to go into the field that they want, and not pigeonhole them,” says Max.

Nicky appears again, ready for his coding class. Max apologizes to me and sets about ordering him an Uber. She decides not to accompany him after all. Instead this could be a milestone for Nicky – his first lone taxi journey. Uang calls the Uber driver to give specific instructions. It arrives and both Max and Uang go out to ensure Nicky gets safely on his way. When Max returns I can see she’s both nervous and happy. If there are any mishaps on the journey, it’s hard to predict how Nicky will cope with it.

I ask her: “What’s been your proudest moment so far?” She ponders this but we’re interrupted by a morning rush of customers, most of whom she greets by name. I’m handed a delicious passion fruit tea, and I think about how impressive Max and Uang’s achievements are, not just in terms of the trainees, but the friendly atmosphere of the café, the décor, and the quality of the food and drink. This is, of course, all part of their vision.

“The reason I wanted to make this place look the way it does is because the trainees walk in with a sense of pride that they are going to work, and this is where they work. They deserve that. I didn’t want a cheap, under-budget kind of place because it’s not going to make them feel good about themselves. They think it’s cool, so that makes them want to come here and it makes the local community want to come here. People come for coffee or lunch and they learn a little bit about what we’re doing, and then they go away and the effect is so positive. So many people have offered to help.”

Now that the café is finished and buzzing, the trainees are progressing, local schools and the local community are engaged, and businesses are on board, what is next for Steps with Theera?

“We’re working with the Thai Special Olympics,” Max tells me. “We’re looking to expand the Steps with Theera program into government schools across the country.” I’m struck once more by her dedication to transforming the situation of people with special needs in Thailand.

As we’re winding up the interview, Max’s phone goes off. She opens it to reveal a series of photos from Nicky, including the Uber driver, the road outside, and a selfie of him beaming from the excitement of the adventure. He’s made it to his destination safely. Max looks up at me from her phone, misty-eyed and with a huge smile.

“You know you asked me what my proudest moment so far has been? Well I think this might be it.”

Find out more at www.stepswiththeera.com

[Photography courtesy of Steps with Theera]

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