Donkeys may have a reputation for being stubborn, but did you know that they are considered to be stronger and smarter than horses? Co-founder of Donkey Bakery, Luyen Shell, likens their reliability, resilience and under-rated quality to those of Vietnam’s often-overlooked citizens: people with disabilities.
“The donkey has a strong character and they’re hard working, but often forgotten,” Mrs Shell (pictured centre with her staff) said. “People talk about other animals, but they don’t mention donkeys.”
At Donkey Bakery, about 80% of its staff have visual, hearing, or other physical disabilities or mental illness or a combination of some of these. In Ms Shell’s eyes, these staff members are more driven and have a stronger work ethic than most able-bodied people.
“They are very eager to learn. It’s easier to work with those with disabilities, more so than the able-bodied,” she said. “They are more appreciative and try harder.”
Situated on 8 Nguyễn Hoàng Tôn, Tây Hồ, Donkey Bakery was co-founded by American citizen Mrs Shell and Dutch man Marc Stenfert Kroese in 2009. Ms Luyen and Mr Kroese had the vision of establishing a socially responsible business that would empower the marginalised. They wanted to demonstrate these staff could maintain superior levels of professionalism, customer service, quality control and hygiene.
The business takes an open approach to hiring, prioritising those who have no experience or qualifications but are the most willing to learn and the most personally motivated.
“I wanted to show that if people with disabilities experience good guidance and instruction, they can be commercially successful in business,” she said.
“As staff grow in self-confidence and gain mastery over their skills, many eventually move on to other opportunities. We train them specifically, so they have the skills to go out. If they find a better job, we are very happy for them. We’re like a stepping stone. And that’s ok with us.”
Donkey Bakery is more than a bakery. It’s also a tastefully decked out dine-in establishment, a catering business and a canteen contractor. It primarily serves western food, including bread, buns, donuts, cakes, cookies and muffins, gourmet sandwiches, burgers, soups, salads, and pastas. Its vast sandwich selections include grilled chicken with roasted vegetables, roast beef with horseradish sauce, curry chicken, lentil hummus and grilled vegetable with feta cheese. Vegetarian options are included.
There are about 85 staff members consisting of more than 20 staff members serving as chefs and kitchen staff at three Donkey Bakery-run international school canteens.
The business started its life as Donkey Donuts out of Ms Luyen’s garage, employing five staff members. As its product range expanded from donuts to a wider variety of breads, pastries and desserts, the business changed its name to Donkey Bakery in 2010. In 2012, it added catering to its operations.
Mrs Shell goes to great pains to emphasise that the success of the business cannot be attributed solely to one person and rather, has always been a team effort.
“We’ve had a chef from the US and master bakers from Germany, Holland and France come and train our staff,” she said. “They take turns coming. We’ve had help from a finance advisor and a marketer from Australia, among many others along the way.”
Mrs Shell was born in Đồng Tháp province, in the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam. As a young woman, she moved to America in the early ’80s where she undertook and graduated from an engineering degree. She met and married her English husband and together they raised three children, a son and two daughters.
“Since I was a young girl, I wanted to help the poor and disadvantaged,” she said. “It came from Christian principles, and my parents, who were very giving individuals, and from my life experience of going through tough times. I wanted to help and bless others.”
In 2004, she and her family relocated to Vietnam and in her first week, she began to volunteer in a Hanoi organisation that helped those with disabilities. The eye-opening experience helped Ms Shell become more aware of the needs of the disabled in Vietnam. According to a report from UN Population Fund, the literacy rate for people with disabilities is 76.3%, compared with 95.2% for other adults. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than three times higher than the rest of the population. Many people with disabilities receive limited educational opportunities as it’s deemed a waste of money.
Mrs Shell met Marc Stenfert Kroese in 2008 and they found common ground in terms of their desire to launch a new business with a focus on corporate social responsibility. The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08 meant Mrs Shell needed a highly experienced business partner to help her navigate intensifying commercial pressures. The pair began to collaborate and co-founded Donkey Donuts months later. The rest is history.
Never ones to rest on their laurels, the pair decided that Donkey Bakery should expand into the organic food business a few years ago. The move was precipitated by heightened global food safety concerns and a desire to ensure that young, growing students at Donkey Bakery-run school canteens had access to clean food. The increasing demands of locals and expatriates for safe food also played a large part in their entry into the organic food market.
Donkey Bakery started an organics farm in November 2015. The vegetables and fruit are grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilisers or genetically modified organisms. The farm animals that produce meat, eggs and dairy products do not take growth hormones or antibiotics. Vegetables and fruit are grown all year round, however, what’s available depends on seasonal availability. The farm grows eggplants, tomato, capsicum, chillies, cucumbers, bananas, papaya, pineapple, oranges, pomelo and many other fruit and vegetables. The aim is to source 90% of the ingredients used in Donkey Bakery’s food from their own organics farm.
If you visit Donkey Bakery, you can see deaf staff bringing out food and blind staff answering phone calls and taking orders. Their camaraderie and pride in their work is obvious. The atmosphere is light, with some of them cracking a joke now and then. Yet you can’t help but think about their resilience. The challenges they had to overcome to get where they are today. The discrimination they still face, in a society where there’s still a huge stigma towards people with disabilities. In the face of little societal recognition, each one of them successfully punches above their weight every day and they do it cheerfully.