How Brodie Leslie crushed it and Alina Alam refused to be one of Nero’s guests

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Let me tell two inter-related stories from our industry that might move and inspire you as they did me.

Amid all the fun, engagement, education, networking and sheer hard work of our recent Airport Food & Beverage (FAB) + Hospitality Conference & Awards, it was these two stories that stood out for me.

The first came with the big reveal of our FAB Superstars for 2024 – our unique award scheme that recognises (to use my words from the presentation) “the doers, the greeters, the front of housers, the behind the sceners, the teams, the individuals, the people whose small, thoughtful touches and acts of service quietly make their colleagues’ jobs easier and passengers’ journeys more pleasurable and memorable”.

There were many outstanding entries and in truth (rather than cliché) each and every team or individual nomination was a winner in their or his/her way.

But as with all awards, the often invidious judging process has to take place. “These awards are about heart and soul, about people whose stories have not only impressed but moved us,” I said.

No story more so than that of a young man named Brodie Leslie, a bartender and coffee barista with Emirates Leisure Retail (ELR) at Launceston Airport.

The ELR nomination began impressively, noting Brodie was the “total go-getter of the team” with a crystal-clear passion for the food & hospitality industry and “an infectious enthusiasm that is downright contagious”. Lovely.

“He is constantly seeking out new skills and training to take his game to the next level,” the judges were told. “Starting in the back of house, he’s worked his tail off to make his dream of being customer-facing a reality. Now, he’s crushing it behind the bar and even honing his coffee skills, leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit of greatness.”

And guess what? Brodie has already achieved that, not only in his career success but in being named Overall FAB Superstar 2024 ahead of scores of entries from around the world.

Let me tell you something else about Brodie. This dedicated young man has Down Syndrome and his outstanding service to ELR and Launceston Airport’s passengers has landed him in the national spotlight, with the Australian media singing his praises and showcasing his story as a shining example of the incredible potential of the Down Syndrome community.

The big moment arrives as I reveal Brodie to be the FAB Superstars Overall Winner
A proud MMI & ELR CEO Tyrone Reid collects the award on behalf of Brodie

His success has opened the door for others, inspiring ELR to streamline their onboarding and training processes to create more opportunities for those typically not able to find employment in the airport space.

Truly a FAB-ulous story and one that made me emotional as I regaled it on stage. For I had an adopted Down Syndrome brother, Al, who sadly passed away almost precisely two years ago to this day. Al would not be considered gifted by most yet in my mind he had the greatest gifts of all. Unquestioning love, an eternal and unspoiled innocence, and a joyous embracing of a world that had not dealt him the easiest of deals. Brodie clearly possesses all those qualities and, as the Facebook post below from Down Syndrome Australia notes, also the ability to inspire his colleagues and the community.

And so to my second story. It involves a young Indian Muslim woman from West Bengal, who as a 22-year-old student viewed a documentary about Nero, the Roman Emperor, notorious for his cruelty and debauchery. She watched, appalled, particularly sickened by the description of how Nero had burned alive prisoners of war and the poor of a conquered town to entertain his guests after a particularly notable victory.

I will let Alina take up the story, the text taken from her guest address at last month’s Bangalore International Airport Limited ElevateBLR workshop, which I had the pleasure to co-moderate.

“If your heart tells you something and you are not willing to take action, whatever your reason may be, then you have taken a side – the side of the oppressor.

“At 22, sitting in my classroom, I realised something very simple. The problem wasn’t Nero. You could equate Nero with atrocities, injustice, discrimination – all those not-so-nice things that exist in this world and will always exist.

“Our team members have served over 6 million meals to the economically vulnerable. All of this has been done by persons with disabilities, thereby changing the narrative.”

“The real problem was Nero’s guests – how thousands of them could sing, dance and drink while fellow human beings burned and died. At that moment, I realised I was one of Nero’s guests. If you feel something about anything, if your heart tells you something and you are not willing to take action, whatever your reason may be, then you have taken a side – the side of the oppressor.

“I decided I couldn’t continue being one of Nero’s guests. I did not sit for college placements but instead started a journey to find myself. I began volunteering with organisations that work in the disability inclusion space because I was raised by my stellar grandmother, who had a disability. Yet all I could see in her were abilities.”

And it was that conviction – recognising ‘the magic of abilities’ – that led Alina to create Mitti Café, an outlet (and now a near 50-strong chain) staffed by team members with disabilities.

“I started Mitti Café with zero start-up capital and faced multiple rejections. I didn’t even know what capex and opex were when I began. But when you have nothing to lose, at your lowest point, that’s when you’re strongest. So I went from door to door, shop to shop, house to house, asking people to join the movement of inclusion.”

“Bhairappa [who has dwarfism, a motor disability and a mild intellectual disability] has become the team lead at the Infosys Mitti Café. Now it’s time for the world to see their abilities, not their disabilities.”
COVID forced the closure of all Mitti Cafés but one opened post-crisis at Sight Care Hospital. It was a fateful development for into that very hospital soon after walked Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) CEO Hari Marar.

“The next day we received a call from Kenneth’s [BIAL Chief Commercial Officer Kenneth Guldbjerg] office saying, ‘Why not have a Mitti Café at Bangalore International Airport?’”

Why not indeed? That first Mitti Café at Kempegowda International Airport Bengaluru (soon followed by a second) led to other airport units being opened in Mumbai and Lucknow. There is even a Mitti Café at the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President of India’s official residence).

As of today, Mitti Cafés run entirely by adults with physical, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities have served over 11 million meals and beverages. “For us, every one of those 11 million meals and beverages is an opportunity to create awareness about inclusion, not by Alina Alam or Mitti Café, but by our changemakers with disabilities who are at the forefront,” Alina says.

“There are millions like our Nandish, Swami and Kirti who are deprived of opportunities only because of their disability. And here we are, at a point of privilege. It is our duty to give back. It’s a debt we owe to society, to our community, to our family, friends, and God for everything they’ve done for us.

“We may never be able to repay it fully in our lifetime, but it is about trying. As one of my favourite poems goes goes – “Mere seene mein nahin toh tere seene mein sahi. Ho kahin bhi aag lekin aag jalni chahiye.” (If not in my heart, then in your heart. Fire may burn anywhere but it must burn.)”

I urge you to read Alina’s full story on our main website. A story that prompted The Moodie Davitt Report to jointly present the 2024 FAB Humanitarian Award to Alina and Bangalore International Airport Limited for their opening of the first airport Mitti Café.

This collaboration has not only delivered vital employment and self-worth for those who work there but has also enriched the lives of all its customers.

Two extraordinarily uplifting tales in the course of a few days. What privilege I have to not only hear these stories but to write them. ✈

I reveal the joint recipients of the 2024 FAB Humanitarian Award, Mitti Café Founder and CEO Alina Alam and Bangalore International Airport Limited

Bangalore International Airport Limited Vice President – Commercial Pravat Paikray accepts the award from The Moodie Davitt Report President Dermot Davitt and me

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