Anjan Manikumar got the idea for his groundbreaking restaurant from a simple act of kindness.
Manikumar was working as a server at a Boston Pizza restaurant where he often interacted with a deaf man, a regular customer. After disjointed efforts at communication, Manikumar decided that simply pointing to menu items and nodding was not the level of service the man deserved, and thus set out to learn some sign language.
The patron was so overjoyed with Manikumar’s efforts that he started to come in more often, and bring his friends. That’s when an idea struck Manikumar: why not design a restaurant to accommodate both deaf and hearing patrons?
After completing his MBA, Manikumar launched his Signs Restaurant & Bar in downtown Toronto three months ago. A first of its kind in Canada, the restaurant is 70 percent staffed by deaf people and caters to both deaf and hearing patrons. Hearing guests are invited to communicate with deaf servers in sign language through simple instructions in the menus.
“The feedback has been phenomenal. 100 percent, pretty much all of our guests love the whole concept,” says Manikumar, who is already considering franchising the business.
“We made it a great experience where we bring the deaf community and the hearing community together.”
Tourists from countries such as India, Germany, the U.K. and U.S. have come to dine at the 150-seat restaurant, and recently 45 members of a deaf American hockey team met there for lunch.
“We have just opened and already we are receiving inquiries from as far as away as the U.K.,” says Manny Manikumar, Anjan’s father and the principal investor in the business.
“Individuals and companies are curious about our concept of hiring deaf servers and they have been very supportive in wishing us continued success.”
But what surprised the younger Manikumar most is the abundance of employment interest he has received from the deaf community. Over 300 deaf people applied for jobs just days after the hiring notice was posted. Now he gets as many as 100 emails a day from all over the world asking if there are any job openings at the restaurant.
“I’ve had emails from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, deaf people from China, India, everywhere, all wanting to come to Signs and work in Canada,” he says.
This may be due to the high unemployment rates found in the deaf community. According to the Canadian Association of the Deaf, only 20.6 percent of deaf Canadians are fully employed; 41.9 percent are under-employed; and 37.5 percent are unemployed. By comparison, 61.8 percent of all Canadians are employed, with only about 7 percent unemployed.
Recognizing the gap, other restaurants that employ the deaf have also been popping up in recent years, in the U.S., Paris, and the Gaza Strip. Similar concept eateries staffed by the blind, such as the O.Noir chain—where patrons dine in complete darkness—have also appeared in the past decade.
Manikumar advises all entrepreneurs to consider hiring people with disabilities—or serving a greater social need—which he sees as the future of sustainable business practices.
“You’re trying not only to make a profit, but also to improve society,” he says. “That’s what makes an entrepreneur successful—financially as well as personally you’ll feel more gratified because you did something for a social cause as well.”