It’s a busy day at the bakery in Pondicherry, India.
A pastry chef quickly works the dough while another chops nuts and fruit. Professional kitchens can be harsh places where egos and tempers run hotter than ovens.
But at the “Eat My Cake” bakery, a respectful vibe hangs in the air along with the aroma of apple tarte Tatin. For the women who work here, this kitchen is a place to learn, earn and build self-confidence away from the abuse and alcoholism they face at home in the nearby slums.
Saving the world through cake
Eat My Cake is the brainchild of Saloua Sahl, a French graphic designer who was looking to give back. Four years ago, she volunteered at a special-needs school in Pondicherry, India. The mothers there inspired her to create a vocational program for local women who are often mired in poverty and male chauvinism.
“It is easier to leave a woman uneducated,” Sahl says when describing the mentality so many of the women there face. “You just have to give them the tools.”
Even though she isn’t a formally trained pastry chef, the 39-year-old decided to open a bakery. Many women in the area grew up cooking, so baking pastries would be an easy transition.
“We had to learn everything all together,” Sahl says.
With a mix of personal finances and donations through Women’s World Wide Web, a crowdfunding platform for female-focused projects, Eat My Cake opened its doors in December 2016.
The start of a solution
Sahl recalls a day when a worker didn’t show up at the bakery. The woman later confided that her husband had smashed a coconut on her head.
Stories like this are what drive the activist and entrepreneur to grow Eat My Cake. “We don’t have the solution. … The fact that you can have an income, send your children to school … this is the start of the solution.”
Working there has brought a new sense of confidence to the women at the bakery.
“They have a key to the bakery and they are super proud to be a part of their city again,” Sahl says.
For most of the women, this is their first job. Janaki, a widowed mother, says her husband did not want her to work, but she defied his wishes for her two daughters.
The 34-year-old wants her girls to have opportunities to pursue their dreams. She says strong female co-workers keep her excited about returning to work every day.
There are two groups at Eat My Cake – the factory team that bakes and the sales team that manages the storefront.
“We need all of the team. We’re all working together,” Sahl says.
The various responsibilities allow the women to grow and thrive in their own way. Basic English and math classes are offered to help the women interact with customers and manage money.
“Everyone has skills. We just have to find the right one and push them on that.”
Sahl strongly believes that if a woman is given the opportunity to grow, her family and community will be positively affected. One employee’s husband stopped drinking after he saw his wife working “like mad.” That same man also witnessed the deaths of two Eat My Cake husbands from alcohol abuse and that motivated him to stay sober.
“To me, it was amazing,” Sahl says. The bakery now occasionally hires him to paint.
On the rise
The future for Eat My Cake includes hiring a head baker to expand the menu and to open another location in Bangalore, a larger city nearby in Southern India. One day Sahl hopes to send an employee to France to formally train and then share her knowledge with the team.
“I’m super proud of them. People tell me that I’m the one with the courage, but I have the education and money. I have a passport and can travel. I respect myself. My husband respects me,” Sahl says.
“But these women, they rise to be queen of the lemon pie or queen of the chocolate pie and they really make a big move in their life. … They are real warriors. They are the women who will make the change. And if it’s possible with them, it’s possible with everyone.”