Early on a summer morning, customers begin to filter on to the shaded patio in front of Fat Cat Karakol. By noon, the sun will hang high overhead in the surrounding Tien Shan Mountains, but it is still early — and loud. The cafe faces a noisy street.
Zhamilia Sydygalieva scurries over to a patio table where two men in World Wildlife Fund shirts sit down. She takes their orders: cheesecake with berry compote. It is an unlikely breakfast in these parts, but so is this cafe’s mission of “Coffee, Food and Giving Back” – the message written across the awning.
Kyrgyzstan is progressive for Central Asia, but Sydygalieva pushes that notion somewhere new with her cafe, Fat Cat Karakol, which opened last August in the town at the eastern edge of Lake Issyk-Kul. Sydygalieva envisions the restaurant as a vehicle for community activism and social responsibility.
“The idea of the cafe is not just to serve tourists or work as a business, but to be a business model,” Sydygalieva said. “We are trying to introduce social responsibility to Karakol, so that other local businesses can do some social activities and social work.”
In Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, new forms of businesses are starting to blossom – cafes and craft breweries are opening and grocery stores are offering better-quality produce and food. Karakol, by contrast, has lagged behind. Sydygalieva sees it as her job to bring an end to this neglect, to show her community and the surrounding villages that they are not overlooked or forgotten.
“I wanted to remind people what is more important, that compassion and caring for the others without knowing them is what’s important, to be able to give a hand in need and share is what’s important,” said Sydygalieva. “After all, kindness and the good deeds is what’s left after us, these are the things that are of value.”
The customers who visit Fat Cat are a mix of locals, backpackers and tourists, along with a healthy dose of Peace Corps volunteers, she said, adding that word is getting out. The menu is rich in items that are not easy finds in Kyrgyzstan: chili con carne, banana bread, grilled cheese, french toast (which, she said, is a popular item people order all day long). The bedrock of her business is coffee, although the beverage has traditionally not been popular among locals, she says. But she has noticed that tastes are starting to change.
“Apart from the tourists and the expats, a lot of the locals are beginning to enjoy [the coffee], too,” she said. “I like watching how the culture of coffee drinking is slowly adapting in Karakol.”
Between taking orders from customers and preparing coffees, Sydygalieva runs back to the kitchen, where she teaches her only employee how to make a pizza. It is a space just big enough for the two of them. They work back to back, so close that not even a sheet of paper could slide between them. The young woman rolls out the dough while Sydygalieva grates the cheese and cuts up some vegetables. She is a victim of domestic violence, a problem so widespread it was part of what inspired Sydygalieva to open the cafe.
“I have grown up in an abusive family, and the domestic abuse is considered as a norm,” Sydygalieva said. Her father was emotionally and physically violent. He abandoned her and her mother when Sydygalieva was 19, presenting a chance for the mother-daughter pair to rebuild their lives.
Sydygalieva went on to study at the American University in Central Asia in Bishkek before completing her masters in Germany. Her mother found her calling by opening Arjun Karakol, one of only two shelters in the Karakol region for domestic violence victims, they say. Though Sydygalieva could have carved out a path for herself in one of Europe’s strongest economies, she instead decided to return to Karakol to work with her mother’s shelter.
She loved Germany, but it was not her motherland, she said. Still, her experience was an eye-opener.
“In Germany, social responsibility is a norm. [Here], the value of helping others and compassion is low, and I wanted to change this,” she said.
Since opening its doors almost a year ago, Fat Cat has started several charitable causes, including teaching baking skills to women from her mother’s shelter, and organizing a school supply drive for the underprivileged families in the villages.
To do so, Sydygalieva sells additional items that she displays on the counter: apple pies, tres leches cakes, red velvet cupcakes – treats that introduce new flavors and ingredients to the local community, making them as radical as the cafe. Hanging on the wall behind the counter are coffee mugs with spunk and character – decorated with sayings like “Screw It, Pour Me Another Cup.” All of the proceeds from these sales go toward the cafe’s social projects.
It is more than local culture and taste buds that have been a challenge for Sydygalieva. The area’s harsh winter tends to hurt her cash flow. Despite the hassles, Sydygalieva persisted.
“Some days I feel like a Jehovah’s Witness trying to talk about … how not only I but they can help serve the community and encourage others,” Sydygalieva said. “But as time goes by, there are more people who know about Fat Cat, know about the concept and the goals of this place, and we have more locals who are willing to help even, with the smallest amount.”
Not long after the cafe opened, Sydygalieva received a call from a local official. “He asked me, ‘I want to help, but I don’t know how,’” she said. Sydygalieva offered him the contact information of those who need assistance most.
Businesses, too, have caught a case of Sydygalieva’s community spirit. Around the New Year, Sydygalieva partnered with three local hostels, a beauty salon and a local taxi company. Together, the companies raised money to bring gifts and holiday cheer to special needs and orphan children, food baskets for low-income and single-mother families, and toiletries for psycho-neurological women’s center in nearby village.
In addition to selling charity cookies, the proceeds of which went to the fundraising, Sydygalieva tried a different platform: she went on the radio.
Scroll through Fat Cat Karakol’s Facebook page, and you will see posts about the good deeds to be done in the community, organized meet-ups for locals, or celebrations of events like Kindness Week or International Women’s Day. The charity bake sales are ongoing, and other recent fundraising included a Kickstarter campaign for a young girl battling spinal muscular atrophy in need of special equipment that the local children’s rehabilitation center, named Ornok, could not afford or provide for her treatment.
“This is a grassroots fundraising. It’s slow moving, it’s frustrating at times, but we are progressively increasing awareness of the underprivileged in the community and how we can help them,” Sydygalieva said. “The mission of Fat Cat was not only doing good in the community but encouraging others to do the same.”