It starts with one dog, and before you know it, you’re the owner of the dog-friendliest cafe in town.
On a recent trip to India, I was drawn to visit a new cafe in Rakkar near Dharamsala Animal Rescue. As I entered the cafe, I immediately felt at home – why? Dogs. Everywhere. Sprawled over the sofas and chairs, in this cafe dogs rule and I couldn’t have loved it more. Yes, there are lots of dog-friendly cafes around now in my home country, but generally the furries aren’t lounging on the furniture. Well, in The Fat Teapot, this is the law of the land.
Curious, I wanted to know the story behind The Fat Teapot and what I found was a genuine dog lover. Sonali patiently told me her story of how she has come to love so many dogs in her life. She has a true soul connection with them and they’ve helped her combine her talent for baking sweet treats with caring for street dogs.
It always starts with one…
Once a quiet child, living in her own stories where she talked to dogs, donkeys and pigs, Sonali has found a new way to be with dogs. Despite describing her childhood home in Delhi as “not very pet-friendly”, she has encouraged her mum to befriend the street dogs. Eventually, she encouraged not just her mom, but all of her friends to be kind to street dogs as well.
Her first dog was Sugar, a labrador and he was not a rescue, she confesses. Her ex bought him from a breeder, but Sugar was the “catalyst for kickstarting her dog rescue efforts. Because of her love for Sugar, she and her friends started to rescue abandoned pedigrees: “we did not foster them or find them homes; we just gave them a home, they became our family.” And so it began.
Moving to Dharamsala in 2019, Sonali sealed her connection with street dogs. She said she was surprised by the unfriendliness and mistrust of street dogs. Every day she would witness people who would shoo them away and she could not couldn’t understand why.
The more she observed the locals living in her rural village, the more she understood and realised it was out of concern for their livestock: “I figured out later that it’s because if they go to their fields, they’d create havoc. So then I understood the psyche of the people here and also slowly realised that there was no way I’d be able to change all of them to accept strays and to treat them right.” But, that did not stop her from trying! She knew that by making small changes, there is always hope. “We started making a small change on the street outside our house and other areas, where we consciously went out and played with the dogs so that locals realise there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Simply by showing kindness, the dogs gravitated towards her and the locals even started to comment on how strange they found it that the dogs didn’t react negatively towards her. Sonali told me that she believes it’s so important for kids to see this especially: “Slowly I’m changing a few kids over to their side and making sure they become friends. It’s an uphill task but I enjoy doing it.”
The question remains: how did Sonali end up running the dog-friendliest cafe in Dharamsala?
A real dog friendly cafe
“I arrived in Dharamsala and couldn’t find the kind of cakes I was used to but was by no means a baker or cook of any sort. I was an editor, I’d hardly entered the kitchen! But here I had no option but to try so I just started baking and seemed like I was good at it.” Sonali told us. The lockdown actually worked in her favour – offering a delivery service helped her get to know people and they certainly got used to her cooking and baking! The positive feedback couldn’t be ignored and many were urging her to open a cafe.
Once Sonali and her partner found the premises, some serious canine supervisors moved in to oversee the renovations! She reminisces that “they became family. A lot of the food was planned in a way that they should be able to eat some of it! One and a bit years on, people know us because they know our dogs.” And this observation is spot on – the dogs are ubiquitous, you can’t help falling in love with them as you sip coffee and devour the cafe’s famous lemon cake.
The sweetness of dogs
Talking of sweet things, Sugar the labrador sadly passed away as The Fat Teapot opened. Sonali couldn’t really express the emotion behind his passing, “it moved me in a way I can’t really explain” she told us. Animals are often our helpers, guiding us to where we’re supposed to be and it seems like no coincidence that Sugar led Sonali to her calling, and then left.
So, it seems as if Sonali has her work cut out and Sugar was the embodiment of both – sweet treats and dogs. If The Fat Teapot manages to normalise the presence of dogs in their establishment, then it can support others to follow suit.
The compassionate approach has brought these canines towards Sonali and she urges others to try to understand them better: “If people would approach them with a little more understanding, they would realise they have feelings and emotions just like us and kindness will never go amiss. I think it’s mostly fear (including rabies, a disease that kills 1 person every 30 mintues in India) and lack of knowledge that keeps people away from them and stops them being friendly.”
What could be sweeter than delicious baked goodies and a dog sitting next to you on a sofa?