Maqbool’s first-ever birthday celebration was one for the books: it was a surprise, impromptu party at an offbeat venue of a construction site in Al Ain. Oh, and Maqbool had just turned 65.

If that sounds like an incredulous paradox, wait until you get to the part where the Pakistani worker hesitantly sliced the cake with a plastic knife because he’d never encountered, let alone, cut a cake in six decades. Those calloused, work-roughened hands had only ever known their way around tools, explains Manmeet Singh, 36, the co-owner of Abu Dhabi-based Celebrating Life Bakery (CLB) and the mastermind who orchestrated Maqbool’s surprise birthday celebration three years ago.

‘It was just another day at work for him until I showed up with the cake,’ Manmeet reminisces. ‘When we started singing Happy Birthday... he became really emotional. I’ll never forget the look of bewilderment and then joy on his face as he slowly realised what was going on.’

An office boy at a local bank struggles to hold back tears

Maqbool’s unadulterated happiness was the confirmation Manmeet was looking for to roll out his passion project, a social initiative called Cake for Cake. Every time a customer purchases a cake weighing 1kg or more from Celebrating Life Bakery, Manmeet and his team surprises a less-fortunate individual with a half-kilo chocolate or vanilla cake on their birthday. ‘We decided to open our own bakery in 2016 when my wife, Ravinder, who is a passionate baker, and I couldn’t find the kind of cake we were looking for. I knew I wanted the business to give back to the community in some way, while remaining a for-profit entity. Around the same time, I came across socially conscious shoe brand TOMS’s One for One model (they give away a free pair of shoes for every pair sold) and decided we can apply the same business model to cakes.’

Manmeet’s friend who worked in the same company as Maqbool did, nominated the sexagenarian as the recipient of the first Cake for Cake celebration, so Manmeet and his team could gauge how people would respond to such an unusual concept and if his idea had legs. The trial run paid off and over the past three years, Celebrating Life Bakery has hosted more than 1,000 such free birthdays across Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Their candle-lit cakes have sparked happiness in the lives of several people, incluing security guards, maids, nannies, cleaners, gardeners, construction workers, drivers and peons, among others.

While TOMS’s One for One model gave structure to Manmeet’s nebulous desire to do something altruistic with cakes and confections, the very concepts of a surprise, free-of-charge birthday celebrations for the underprivileged was sown on a family vacation to North India, where Manmeet celebrated his son Abheet’s birthday with a group of poor children from a local school. ‘We noticed the school perched on a steep hillside accessible only by foot on our way up to the resort. I went to check out the school out of curiosity, but once I got there and spoke to the head teacher, it struck me it might be a great idea to celebrate my son’s birthday with these impoverished kids who I was told never even had proper birthdays of their own.’

Companies are encouraged to nominate staff for the free birthday cake

When the resort heard of Manmeet and his family’s decision to include the local schoolchildren in their celebrations, they chipped in with snacks and refreshments for the kids, contributing to the generosity. ‘When we brought the cake, the energy of the room changed completely! The kids were dancing to the music we played, and cheering and clapping as we cut the cake. The teacher told us how a cake was a luxury for these children. Seeing the happiness on their faces from such a simple celebration I knew I had to do something similar in the UAE.’

Manmeet, who works for an oil and gas company, decided to zero in on blue-collar workers, particularly construction workers. Having fraternised with the lowest rung of the corporate ladder in his professional capacity as a field engineer in rigs, he had been privy to the sense of homesickness and loneliness that expat workers endure regularly. Casual conversations with cleaners and construction workers who he met in and around the capital’s Khalidiyah Park threw him for a loop. ‘When we asked when their birthdays were, some said they’d have to check their passport as they couldn’t remember the date,’ says Manmeet.

In that moment the extent of the privilege he and others of his social strata enjoyed hit home — there he was, just back from an international holiday planned around his son’s birthday and here were people whose lives were riddled with hardships and different priorities that they couldn’t afford to remember the one day every individual can rightfully claim as their own. The irony of the apocryphal quote, ‘let them eat’ was reinforced with each encounter Manmeet had, right from the school children in India, to his meeting with Maqbool; what was a tradition for most of us was a luxury for many.

Manmeet opened the bakery in 2016 with wife, Ravinder, who is a 'passionate baker'
Stefan Lindeque

It’s to drum this message into people that the Cake to Cake concept has incorporated a nomination policy. ‘When customers buy a cake, we ask them to nominate someone they think is worthy of a free cake and birthday celebration. This allows everyone to get involved and make an impact in the lives of someone, explains Manmeet. The only rule is that the cake must go to someone who can’t celebrate otherwise and customers should be willing to handover the nominee’s contact details, so CLB can verify that the free cake is going to someone in real need.

The impact is twofold and like every act of kindness, transforms not just the beneficiary but also the benefactor — Manmeet has had customers who have become full-time volunteers after experiencing the joy of nominating someone and paying it forward. ‘They are salespeople, engineers and homemakers who have their own day jobs but in the evenings they want to accompany us and help conduct these celebrations just so they can witness the celebrants’ delight first-hand.’

Manmeet and Shamshul Huda, the co-owner of the bakery who has a full-time job as an HR representative, make time to attend celebrations in person if they fall on the weekends and their days off from work. At all other times, Celebrating Life Bakery’s philanthropic work is executed by its three-member team — store manager Jenifer Romero, driver Waqar Mubashar and Rachel Sariola — under the supervision of Manmeet’s wife Ravinder.

Manmeet’s son Abheet and Shamsul’s kids Ruhi and Arisha helped put together iftar packages last year

Manmeet counts himself lucky to have a team that is as passionate about the Cake for Cake initiative as he is: Waqar delivers surprise cakes to workers on night shifts willingly outside of his duty hours to make someone’s birthdays even more magical; Jenifer patiently educates every walk-in customer about the cake for cake concept, urging them to nominate someone or pass on their nomination to friends and families who might know of a deserving candidate; and Rachel meticulously organises balloons, cakes, candles and all the items essential to a celebration.

For the CLB team, spreading happiness hardly counts as work. ‘I will never forget the time we surprised a driver in Musaffah and the man was so overwhelmed, he deflated a balloon and put it in his wallet as a keepsake from his surprise celebration. That’s how much what we did meant to him.’

She goes on to describe the tumult of emotions they feel at these events: ‘Most of them are crying and can’t express their happiness in words, so they express it with hugs and we know then that no amount of money can buy the happiness they feel from getting a simple cake and our eyes fill up with tears too.’

‘I believe true happiness is all about making others happy,’ pipes in Waqar, echoing Manmeet’s philosophy and motto that ‘the best feeling in the world is knowing that someone is happy because of you.’

A midnight surprise birthday cake for a security guard

The walls of the tiny patisserie in Abu Dhabi’s Electra Street is papered from ceiling to floor with such uplifting quotes, each embodying the adage that big surprises come in small packages. Done up in cheery pastels and stacked with every variety of cake imaginable — ice-cream cakes, cupcakes, cheesecakes, the cakes here sweeten the lives of people for days and years after the last of the icing smears have been wiped off faces.

That’s the general power of cakes, Manmeet tells me, smiling. It’s one of the reasons why he chose to gift people a cake instead of handing out pastries or grocery items and essentials or giving away money like most charitable organisations do. ‘When you give a cake to someone on their birthday and wish them, it makes them feel loved, appreciated and respected.’

Celebrating with a stranger forges a connection with them at a human level, explains Manmeet of the universality of birthdays. ‘That’s a very strong bond and they’ll remember you for life — you’re making someone feel valued for their existence and expressing your gratitude. We’ve repeatedly celebrated the birthday of this one security guard who waits for us to show up every year now. It’s no longer a surprise but the gesture still matters to him.’

Manmeet recounts an incident where a worker was nonplussed when he saw his birthday cake aglow with candles; he didn’t know the tradition of blowing out the candles on the cake and making a wish. By teaching him that, Manmeet and his team turned bridging socio-economic and cultural gaps — the goals of the Year of Tolerance — into a piece of cake.

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As simplistic as Cake for Cake is as a concept, it’s effects are positive, far-reaching and multilayered, which is what bagged Manmeet a spot as one of the nine finalists of Citizen watches’ Better Starts Now Campaign that aimed to provide financial assistance to deserving social causes in the UAE. ‘I feel lucky to have been a part of it because it helped highlight so many regular people who are striving for social causes.’

To Manmeet, social causes matter because of his humble beginnings and the knowledge that life isn’t always a cakewalk. ‘I spent the initial years of my life in a one-room apartment in Mumbai that we shared with 23 family members. My dad, a farmer’s son from Punjab, ensured that I had access to education, stability and comforts of life and a proper living. But it took time for us to reach there, and he taught me that we need to treat others the way we’d like to be treated. He’s my hero.’

Hailing from the Sikh community meant Manmeet grew up with volunteering ingrained into his everyday life. ‘We’ve always been taught to love and respect our fellow human beings regardless of their religion or caste. I’ve always volunteered at Gurudwaras serving langars (free lunches) to around 300-400 people every day. So serving the community has been part of my upbringing, and I’ve always wanted to translate that into something on a bigger scale here in Abu Dhabi.’

The social initiative took root from a chance visit at an underprivileged school in India

Helping him translate that vision into reality is his partner Shamshul Huda, who has devised a scheme to enrol corporate firms to nominate their workers. ‘Companies can celebrate their white-collared workers’ birthdays with our cakes and in turn, they can nominate semi-skilled workers and support staff and helpers within the organisation for free, surprise birthday celebration. It will help us reach out to more blue-collared workers in a shorter span of time than if we contacted them individually.’

Meanwhile, Celebrating Life Bakery is also preparing to launch an app customers can use to nominate people instead of emailing or calling up the store; they’re also slowly expanding their operations to Dubai.

At the store, the celebration of life is coming full circle for the owners — like Manmeet followed in the footsteps of his father, his son Abheet (7) and Shamshul’s older daughter Ruhi (13) are emulating their fathers’ generosity: Ruhi helps at the stores on weekends and is implementing the Cake for Cake concept in her schools. ‘Abheet has declared that he’s celebrating his eight birthday on May 19 by giving a cupcake to each of the janitors, cleaners and support staff in his school,’ says Manmeet.

‘We’ve managed to instil a passion for something bigger than themselves in the next generation and what better way to celebrate life than that?’