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Canteen Vendor Spotlight: My Nonna’s

Many recognise My NoNNa’s to be a social enterprise that aims to provide employment for the intellectually disabled, but its inner workings are perhaps still rather obscure to most of us. It is already the June holidays when we speak to Ms Geraldine Tan, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the social enterprise, but the stall is still buzzing with activity. 

By Calista Chong (18A01A), Ianni Tan (18S03C), Yeo Kee Hwan (18S03Q), Chung So Hyun (18A13A), Catherine Zou (17A01B), Ethan Aw (4E) and Aaron Tan (4C)

For her, My NoNNa’s is inherently different from the canteen vendor stalls we usually see. She explains that canteen stores are mostly single stores run by families, whilst it is important for My NoNNa’s to expand. ‘[Normal canteen stores are] different from us – the more stalls we have, the more special needs [people] we employ. So for us it’s very important to grow.

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To do this, it has been all adaptation and improvisation in the short few months she has
spent at RI. This starts from the very food they sell – what is most striking about the entire affair is how Ms Tan constantly adds to her business model. The first thing she tells us about is their recently developed recipe for a freshly baked pizza – handcrafted from scratch. ‘That means we use bread flour, use the mixer to knead the dough, we roll out the dough, and put the toppings.’ When we ask how she came up with the idea, the response is: ‘One day I felt like eating pizza, and I asked them to make me some. I had to teach them.’

In fact, we learn that Ms Tan is a self-taught chef, and has developed all the recipes in My
NoNNa’s. ‘I go with the flow,’ she tells us. ‘Some recipes take a long time to think about but some in five minutes I’ll put this together, put this together, then – voilà!’ The recipe
she is most proud of is their oven baked pastas. ‘Last time [we only sold] fresh pastas with sauces. So we would make the spaghetti, and then make the sauces. So I thought, well, what if I wanted to have some cheese, gooey gooey cheese on it? So that’s how we actually devised the oven baked pasta.’

In less than a day, they had worked out a few recipes – spicy tuna, chicken, and vegetarian. ‘Oven baked pasta is something I want to be famous for, we’re already selling a lot of it at our other outlets, RGS, and at Nanyang Girls’ High School. The girls there are crazy about our oven baked pasta. When they queue up they’ll just ask for oven baked pasta, until we finish [selling everything].’

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Developing recipes is only one aspect of the job – Ms Tan is also responsible for training and managing the special needs staff. To date, MyNoNNa’s has opened four stalls, with two to three special needs workers under one able-bodied manager to ‘work with them and train them continuously’ per stall. The training process must be flexible: ‘we want to give them employment but you cannot just employ and deploy. You must employ, train, then deploy, and then continue to train and then continue to deploy.’

To do this, she says that ‘your heart has to be in the right place. And more than anything else, patience. If you have patience, you can definitely work with them – if you don’t have
patience, it’s impossible.’ In Singapore, though, ‘it’s hard to find people with patience!
Otherwise, I can open 20, 30 stalls. I just don’t have enough able-bodied managers with the patience to look after them – that’s my struggle.’

In this respect, opening a store in RI has posed some problems for the enterprise. Even though Italian cuisine is relatively systematic, making it easier to pick up, ‘we would have done a lot better if we were in the secondary school side,’ she says. In secondary schools, the lunch schedule is very straightforward – ‘You come to school, you prepare the stuff, and then when it comes recess, you serve like mad. After recess you clear, second recess, you serve. So there’s a very clear structure. Here in the JC side it’s different. Because y’all can come down anytime in drips and drabs, so they don’t know what to do.’

In fact, that’s one of the other reasons why she has decided to start selling pizza: ‘Pizza is
something that you can do while you are not serving, you can still prepare the pizza. So it
gives them something to do. The last thing we want is for them to just sit there at the stall and not do anything. Because as long as they are idle, their thoughts will go all over the place. It’s difficult for them when they don‘t have structure.’

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But if anything, Ms Tan is innovative – she has solutions in the works for everything. She has spruced up the storefront with a new menu and new Italian flags. Moreover, she has started to use social media to promote the stall: ‘We use social media a lot now, Instagram – I am following Raffles Basketball’. Even more impressively, they have teamed up with another entreprise to create a unique phone app.

The team she has worked with, she tells us, is ‘very visionary, and they have the tech ability to create the phone app. So the app is wonderful, and what will happen is [that] when you order and pay for your meal, it will pop up on [a] printer [in the stall], which will print out receipts.’

Right now, behind the app, BevEat, ‘is to market it all out. The whole idea around it is that students get food hot hot fresh fresh – that’s something no one else has.’ In fact, they have already developed a lunch service for an international school, and also cater for some corporations who had approached at an event at SCAPE. As she talks, Ms Tan is putting together salads for a bento with a special needs colleague.


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Ultimately, she says that she enjoys working in RI because there is a close collaboration with the school. Community Advocates, for example, has a MyNonna’s service group which is gearing up to publicise their upcoming phone app. This link with the students is exactly what she has had in mind in setting up her entreprise:

‘We want to not only train and employ our special needs workers, but we also want to help educate the students in the schools to understand them. You can even interact with
some of my special needs workers here. [Through this], you understand what it means
to be special needs.’

The message is clear – the constant innovation Ms Tan embarks on is emblematic of a greater effort to solve a social problem. And My NoNNa’s is a good start in approaching this. Ultimately, in the flurry of giving up a five-figure salary to run the social enterprise, where she specialises in everything from cooking to training and management, Ms Tan’s vision is clear.

‘My generation actually [struggles] because we have not hired enough of the people with
special needs,’ she says. And My NoNNa’s is precisely about problem-solving.

Through the students’ interactions with the vendors of My NoNNa’s, they will ‘have no
issues hiring people with special needs in the future,’ Ms Tan tells us emphatically. ‘We also want to solve the [your] generation’s problem.’

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