Although he has spent over nine years in the restaurant industry, Anjan Manikumar credits a single circumstance for where he is today. While working as a manager at Boston Pizza, Manikumar had a regular customer whom happened to be deaf. Since he didn't feel that customer was being given the same "personal touch" as everybody else, he decided to learn the basics of sign language. When he tried it out, the customer was delighted.
That interaction sparked an idea in Manikumar's head. The idea came to fruition just over a week ago— after 2 long years of work— when he opened Signs Restaurant and Bar at 558 Yonge Street. Signs is a restaurant staffed completely with deaf servers. In fact, everyone except a few people in the kitchen know sign language. And even the people in the kitchen have started to pick it up.
Here, Manikumar and manager Rachel Shemuel talk about their opening, the restaurant itself, their future plans going forward with this concept, and more.
What are your thoughts on the opening and first week in business?
AM: There was so much media attention, we felt it would be overwhelming for the staff. So we had a quiet opening and decided not to go crazy. Being a completely new concept, to be this good in a week, I'm very happy about it. Very proud.
How has the deaf staff handled the job?
RS: Some are better than people in the industry. They are eager, they have passion, and it's an industry they may be discriminated in otherwise. Ultimately [they are] just speaking a different language.
Is this concept completely new or just new to the city of Toronto
AM: A completely new concept worldwide. The first of its kind where the customer is signing for their food.
RS: It is the first of its kind when it comes to the experience itself.
What challenges have you faced?
AM: The biggest challenge we've faced is that our concept is quite new. It requires a separate model of its own, separate operations. You can't replicate stuff [like a chain restaurant]. Took a phenomenal amount of time.
What has the reaction been from deaf customers?
AM: They are overjoyed that they are being given an environment where they can be comfortable. Where there is no confusion or wrong orders. It is significant for them and they are here to support. I'm humbled by it.
What has the response been like from the non-deaf customers ?
RS: It has been amazing! The response is overwhelming. People have been coming from San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles. We've received emails from Ukraine, the UK, Holland, France, basically all over the world. We're viral now. We even had someone come in that lives right by us that got the news from someone in Australia.
What is put in place to help people that don't know sign language communicate with the servers?
AM: There is a cheat sheet on every table. You can point for allergies [or anything you want to remove or have substituted]. It [also] has the alphabet, numbers, and other terms. It took a lot of help from the Deaf community. Many prominent organizations were very supportive.
Have you had any customers who didn't know what the restaurant is? And if so, what did they think?
RS: Yes. [Smiles.]
AM: Almost all of them have thought, 'wow, this is so different.' They think it's cool that they can order their beers using sign language.
What part does the food play in the restaurant? Is it more than just an 'experience' type of place?
AM: [The food] is the surprise element that gets customers to come back. We make everything in house. Everything [is made] from scratch, even the salad dressing. It is a chef's dream to make everything from scratch. Not a single complaint about the food.
Are there any plans for expanding this concept or start other similar ventures?
AM: It is a good initiative and idea to start with. We will see how the restaurant progresses. It is a great opportunity for the deaf and we're all excited, ready to work long hours. It is so much fun working. I feel like they are all part of my family.
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