Work Life / Signs Restaurant Breaks Barriers And Creates Support With An All Deaf Staff

Signs Restaurant Breaks Barriers And Creates Support With An All Deaf Staff

Work Life Jan 16, 2016

We chat with this forward-thinking entrepreneur about opening up Canada's first restaurant with a deaf staff.  

Seven years ago, back when he was managing a fast food restaurant in Markham, Anjan Manikumar learned basic American Sign Language (ASL) to converse with one of his regular customers who was deaf. The customer — who was used to mostly pointing out pictures or words to place his orders — was so overjoyed to find Anjan taking his order and telling him to enjoy his food using signs that he came back with friends the next day. 

This encounter kicked off an idea and fast forward a few years Manikumar — armed with several years of experience in the restaurant business and an MBA from the Ted Rogers School of Management — opened his own restaurant, Signs, in the summer of 2014. Located in downtown Toronto’s busy Yonge and Church area, it was Canada’s first restaurant to hire a majority of deaf staff. 

Signs offers more than just another fine dining experience. Each menu comes with an ASL cheat sheet and customers are encouraged to order food using sign language. For those still unsure, there’s a hearing hostess to assist — she also greets and seats patrons at their tables and introduces the deaf server.


Anjan Manikumar, founder and owner of Signs Restaurant and Bar.

Photo credit: Signs Restaurant

Restaurant patrons learn to place their order using signs.
Photo credit: Signs Restaurant

Originally from Kolkata, India, Manikumar, 30, lived in Dubai where he started working as a busser at the age of 17 and worked his way up. Upon moving to Toronto he continued working in the restaurant industry and went on to become the general manager and then area manager managing three outlets at a time for a major fast food chain. 

Before launching Signs, Manikumar did more than a year’s worth of research to understand the industry and learn more about the hearing impaired community. He attended ASL classes to learn the language and conducted several interviews with members of the hearing impaired community to map out the concept for Signs. Due diligence also included partnering with the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf (BRCD), the Canadian Hearing Society (CHS), the Toronto Association of the Deaf (TAD) and the Ontario Association for the Deaf (OAD).

The BRCD and the CHS later assisted with identifying potential candidates for staffing the restaurant. To proof the concept, Manikumar hired a few potential candidates to test his idea. Following the tests, when some 300 applicants applied to his ad, both organizations also helped with reviewing the resumes, interviewing candidates and then with training the selected applicants. Almost none of the selected candidates had ever worked in the service industry prior to this and so their training — in addition to learning about Signs and the food it served — included basics like how to take orders and how to hold trays of food and walk with a full tray. “The associations have been so supportive of our endeavours and have helped with training our deaf servers,” says Manikumar of the partnerships. “They have helped simplify my job considerably. As a result of their extension training, signing is now an automatic form of communication for me too.”

A busy evening at Signs Restaurant at 558 Yonge Street in Toronto. 
Photo credit: Signs Restaurant     

Today, in addition to about 10 hearing staff Signs hires some 35 deaf employees including servers and back-end kitchen workers. “I have learned so much from our deaf staff,” he says. “It’s been a fantastic experience for all of us involved in creating a unique environment for our restaurant patrons.”

As for the patrons, they’re continuing to return and Signs is building momentum. The menu features a mix of international and Canadian cuisine — think Pad Thai alongside Butter Chicken alongside a selection of game meats — and is refreshed every four to six months. This, combined with the unusual concept of learning to sign while you order, has attracted locals and tourists alike. The restaurant recently also played host to some forty-plus members of the American hearing impaired hockey team during their visit to the city. 

According to the CHS awareness survey of 2002 nearly one out of every four adult Canadians reports having some hearing loss, although closer to 10 per cent actually identify themselves as deaf or hard of hearing. A 2006 study by Statistics Canada found about 5 per cent of Canadians aged 15 years or older reported having hearing impairment, a broad category. The unemployment rate in this category was reported at 10.4 per cent, however the numbers are expected to be higher for the completely deaf. 

According to a 1998 survey by the Canadian Association for the Deaf, only 20.6 per cent of deaf Canadians are fully employed, 41.9 per cent are underemployed and 37.5 per cent are unemployed. By comparison, 60.9 per cent of all Canadians are employed and only 8.1 per cent are unemployed. 

Manny Manikumar, Anjan’s father, who oversees the financials for the restaurant says that part of their mandate is to bring the deaf and hearing communities closer together by creating a familiar environment for the deaf community while offering those who can hear the chance to learn something new. “Individuals and companies are curious about our concept of hiring deaf servers and they have been very supportive in wishing us continued success,” he says.

Main Image Photo Credit: Signs Restaurant