The Covai Trans Kitchen is probably a first of its kind. This restaurant in Coimbatore is entirely managed and operated by a group of transgenders. Just around the corner of the busy bus stop, it serves delicious biriyani and set-menu meals. Their most popular item being the ‘unlimited biriyani’.
Set up with the help of #COVIDActionCollab (CAC) partners, Covai Mavatta Thirunangaigal Nala Sangam (CMTNS) and Swasti, the Covai Trans Kitchen is run by 7 transgender women. During a difficult year when livelihoods have been disrupted across all sections of the society, the Trans Kitchen is a rare silver lining.
The restaurant was scheduled to be opened earlier in the year but the COVID-19 related nationwide lockdown delayed it. When the lockdown hit, the transgender community was among the worst affected with most losing their livelihoods and finding themselves in debt, struggling to get through those tough months. CAC supported over 300 members of CMTNS with food and essential supplies during the lockdown. “We would not have survived the lockdown period without this help,” sighs Achukutty, the secretary of CMTNS. When the restaurant finally opened on September 2, 2020, the pandemic had not yet abated, but there was a need to restore means of dignified livelihoods.
The transgender community in Coimbatore has the unique repute of being the best biriyani makers. In fact, 60 percent of the community is engaged in the food catering industry.
Initially, when members of the TG community started a catering business in 2012, stigma was one of the most difficult hurdles they had to overcome. Orders were slow to come but soon picked up as the quality and taste of their biriyani became renowned. It was this experience and eminence that CMTNS leveraged to start the Covai Trans Kitchen. A restaurant potentially means more regular income.
Achukutty (second from left), Mr. Thirumala Rao, District Development Manager at NABARD (fourth from left), CMTNS board members and Swasti staff at the inauguration of Covai Trans Kitchen
CMTNS and Swasti jointly approached NABARD and local donors, including United Way Chennai who funded the project with INR 7.5 lakhs. With the support of NABARD, CMTNS trained 50 members in professional cooking and the basics of running a food business.
Achukutty, the Secretary of CMTNS and currently the head of Trans Kitchen, said they were fully confident of starting their business in the middle of the pandemic, when even established businesses were struggling. “We went into it without any fear, because we were confident of our cooking and we always knew we would have Swasti for any kind of support,” she said. The confidence wasn’t misplaced. The Covai Trans Kitchen sees an average footfall of 60-80 people between 11am and 5pm daily, serving a diverse customer base – from college students to families. While the restaurant only serves lunch at the moment, they are planning to start serving breakfast and dinner by July 2021, meanwhile growing from 7 to 15 members of staff.
The positive reception from the people of Coimbatore came as a pleasant surprise to Achukutty and they seem to have developed a special relationship with their customers. “Most of our customers have been very encouraging and supportive, some more than our own families,” said Achukutty. From a family coming all the way from Chennai to taste their food, to a college student inviting them to her birthday party, small but significant instances of public acceptance have kept the motivation of the staff high. “People used to see us differently. That stigma is slowly disappearing among people,” said Achukutty.
But there’s still a long way to go, in terms of holistically integrating the transgender community into mainstream society. “Whenever I’m in the kitchen, I feel a part of the larger community. I feel like I belong. But the minute I step out, I feel out of place and lonely. Outside, our identity is restricted to a transgender and that changes how people see us,” Achukutty says.