Why this isn't your average restaurant

In a positive step, Signs a restaurant in Toronto, not only employs hearing impaired staff but also encourages its guests to order their meals using American Sign Language

Q. What made you decide on this concept for your restaurant?
A. The idea came by while I was working at a restaurant a few years ago. I had a hearing impaired guest who used to dine in that restaurant regularly. He was a very nice person. However, he used to order for his food by pointing at pictures and words. I felt that this guest was not getting the experience that he deserved. He was paying the same price as any other guest who dines in that restaurant. I wanted to make it a better experience for him. So, I tried to learn some basic sign language, like ‘How are you?’ ‘Nice to meet you’, ‘Enjoy’, ‘Thank you’ and so on. When the deaf guest came back another day, I tried what I learned on him. He was delighted! He was surprised I could actually sign! This guest immediately brought his friends the next day!  This encounter made me think about how ‘fun’ it would be to have a restaurant staffed with the deaf and make hearing people ‘try’, and use sign language for their food. At that point in time, I felt it was a fun idea. I started to think about this concept more seriously after I completed by MBA at Ryerson University. When the right time came, I was able to launch Signs.

Signs restaurant
Signs is an upper casual dining restaurant, run by an Indian origin restaurateur that is staffed with hearing impaired servers. It is located in the Yonge and Wellesley intersection in downtown Toronto.

Q. What was the background research that went into ensuring your idea could be implemented?
A. I researched on this concept for nearly a year, by mostly mingling with the hearing impaired community in Toronto. I attended the American Sign Language (ASL) class to learn more about the language. I also interviewed a number of deaf people in order to develop the concept. Two organisations — Bob Rumball’s Centre for the Deaf (BRCD) and Canadian Hearing Society (CHS) greatly assisted me in connecting with potential candidates for my restaurant and with their help I hired a few for testing the proof of concept. I trained a few hearing impaired staff using interpreters on basic restaurant service and also on the process to be followed. Once ready, we invited a few friends for dinner, for which the food was ordered from outside, but served by our hearing impaired servers. The guests’ feedback after the concept testing was fantastic, which ensured that this idea could be implemented.

Signs restaurant

Q. How did you go about training staff for the concept?
A. Training was a long-drawn out and difficult affair as none of my hearing impaired staff had any experience in the restaurant industry. Experts from a non-profit organisation in Toronto called Hospitality Workers Training Centre (HWTC) trained our staff on all aspects of restaurant service using sign language interpreters. I spent a lot of time with HWTC in finalising the training plan and the content. The first part of the training was conducted off-site and the second part in-house at the restaurant premises.  Once this is done, my manager did the rest of the training on the system and other administrative aspects. I am fortunate to get a manager with lots of restaurant experience, but who also knows ASL well. Our deaf servers are so talented that they picked up the training so very well that their performance now is fantastic.

American Sign Language
The English Alphabet in American Sign Language

Q. What has been the response so far from your customers?
A. The response from customers has so far been excellent. Our customers enjoy learning the sign language for communication with our hearing impaired staff.

An attendant interacts with customers who attempt to use sign language to place an order at Signs
An attendant interacts with customers who attempt to use sign language to place an order at Signs

Q. What were some of the challenges that you encountered along the way?
A. Apart from concept development and testing, the greatest challenge, I would say, has been the setting up of operations, where the hearing impaired staff and hearing staff without knowledge in sign language work together. This has surprisingly, turned out to be straightforward as the hearing staff took interest in learning sign language and are able to communicate with the hearing impaired staff to a certain extent.

Anjan Manikumar
Anjan Manikumar. President & Founder, Signs restaurant, Toronto

Q. What realisations and lessons have you learnt so far?
A. I am blessed to get this opportunity to mingle, understand and work with the hearing impaired community. One of my objectives is to utilise this platform for breaking barriers between hearing and hearing impaired communities. Also, hearing impaired community people feel at home when they visit Signs restaurant, which they would have never experienced before. So far, the going has been good and I wish to sustain the continued patronage from customers. But there is a long way to go.

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What's so special?
Although there are few restaurants employing deaf staff in other parts of the world, Signs has an interesting concept of guests using American Sign Language (ASL) to order their food with the help of instructions given in the menu. Guests not only experience exceptional service, but also enjoy learning the language while interacting with the deaf staff at Signs.

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