BUSINESS UNUSUAL

Inside a cafe where all servers are deaf

Opened in January, the Pallet cafe in Lavington, Nairobi is not a project or a charity. It is a purely business initiative that has given deaf people a chance to show they can serve clients just as well as abled people

In Summary

• A survey last year found that 10 per cent of Kenya's population is disabled.

• However, speech- and hearing-impaired persons are 'quick learners, more focused and less distracted'

Jacqueline Wambui (Standing) taking lunch orders from two customers at Pallet Cafe,Lavington Nairobi on June 25th.2019
Jacqueline Wambui (Standing) taking lunch orders from two customers at Pallet Cafe,Lavington Nairobi on June 25th.2019
Image: DOUGLAS OKIDDY

Walking past the Pallet cafe on a leafy avenue in Lavington, there is little to suggest it is any different from other cafes in Nairobi. Until you enter the premises and take a closer look.

Hotel entrance
Hotel entrance
Image: DOUGLAS OKIDDY

The customers seem to be gesticulating a little more than usual, even taking into account the expressiveness of hand gestures. And the waiters and waitresses are gesticulating back.

Are they arguing?

Not really. In this restaurant, waiters and waitresses are deaf and they are taking orders from customers at this rustic outdoor cafe.

The cafe is really rather quiet compared to the usual noise levels of busy Nairobi hotels at lunchtime. Once a customer steps into the cafe, they are greeted in sign language and shown to a table.

All the five waiters and waitresses on the ground are deaf and are dressed in all black attire written '#I am deaf' on the back.

The customers are then offered the menu as soon as they have their seats. The front page of the menu has basic sign language on it, which they can use to order food items, mostly coffee.

Menu from the pallet restaurant has signs to aid the waiters to know
Menu from the pallet restaurant has signs to aid the waiters to know
Image: DOUGLAS OKIDDY

HIGH ALERT

Given that the waiters cannot hear, they constantly scan the room to see if customers require attendance.

When a customer finally decides on what they would like, they signal to a waiter to take their order.

The customer then points to what they would like on the menu, using codes assigned to each meal or drink. Alternatively, they can write their order down on a pad of paper, which the waiter constantly carries along with a pen.

But the saying you cannot teach an old dog new tricks has never rung truer than with some customers in this restaurant. Over and over again, most people really explain themselves to the waiters when placing orders.

Some customers want to send messages to the chefs through the waiter, while others will place an order and also send a message to the management about previous food, and others will shout their order.

The Star witnessed one customer shouting, "Waiter bring me two chapatis. One kebab and veggies. Tell the chef not to put pepper on the kebab, just like last time."

So, how do they deal with such?

Pallet Cafe general manager Susan Watkin
Pallet Cafe general manager Susan Watkin
Image: DOUGLAS OKIDDY

General manager Susan Watkin, who is an able staff, says she is always on the ground to deal with such cases.

"Some customers may be doubtful that the servers understand their food order, so I intervene," she says.

Watkin says she trained the servers on how to deal with customers before they began their job in January, when the hotel was opened.

"All our servers are deaf. They are five out of the 15 overall staff. They have been trained to understand whenever a customer does not realise they are impaired and respond accordingly."

She says when the servers approach customers, they first notify them they are deaf by pointing on an "I am deaf" sign on the menu.

"When they sensitise the customers on their conditions, the customers then either use signs, point to their order or write on the notebook," Watkin says.

She says clients find it an adventure when they come in to eat and also learn how to use signs.

“Right now, however, I can sit back and watch because there are rarely any hitches. The staff are very comfortable and have things in their own hands. They have made a lot of friends with the clients,” Watkin says.

Edward Gitau, 24, takes an order from a customer
Edward Gitau, 24, takes an order from a customer
Image: DOUGLAS OKIDDY

One of the waiters, Edward Gitau, 24,  says he has settled in well. "Here, people understand my disability and are always willing to help wherever they can. They try to integrate me into the community,” he said.

Gitau became deaf in 2008. "I was born hearing with one ear but dust blocked that ear and I lost my hearing ability," he said.

Before he landed the job in January, he worked as an artisan in Ol Kalau. He says he is comfortable working at the cafe because people appreciate him regardless of his disability.

Back in Ol Kalou, he felt downtrodden because customers would chase him away and ask for an abled employee.

He can read simple lip movements like 'fries', 'tea' and 'coffee'.

Jackline Wambui ,25, taking orders from customers
Jackline Wambui ,25, taking orders from customers
Image: DOUGLAS OKIDDY

EDUCATED

Gitau went to school and recently graduated from the Karen Technical Training Institute for the Deaf.

Jacqueline Wambui, 25, studied in the Agha Khan Academy and later also joined the Karen institute.

"I have really looked for a job and I never imagined I would get an opportunity to work in a service industry, interacting with people."

Just like Gitau, Wambui was born hearing then contracted an illness that made her lose her sense of hearing.

According to the 2018 survey by the Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Kenya, 10 per cent of Kenya's population is disabled.

Around 3 million of the disabled people have limited opportunities for accessing employment.

Hotel owner Feisul, 29.
Hotel owner Feisul, 29.
Image: DOUGLAS OKIDDY
We are abled differently and can deliver services like normal people. Employers should thus give more of us a chance in work opportunities
Divia Awuor, 36

HUMANITY

Hotel owner Feisul says he decided to employ deaf servers to give them a livelihood and to improve their self-confidence.

“The disabled people are human beings, too, and they have needs. I believe they are fully capable of any work," Feisul, who did not want to reveal his second name, said.

He says he has no regrets. "I opened this cafe in January. I am surrounded by competitors like Java, Artcaffe, but I'm doing fine. The sales are amazing I can't complain," he said. 

Feisul is a staunch Buddhist who believes in peace and giving back to the community.

"I don't look at the qualifications of these deaf people. To me, you can have a master's and still not deliver. I believe in training them for the job," he said.

Divia Awuor (standing), 36, serves burgers to two customers
Divia Awuor (standing), 36, serves burgers to two customers
Image: DOUGLAS OKIDDY

Training them took around three days, Watkin the GM told us.

"I had never related with deaf persons before, but I can attest that they are very easy to train for they are highly passionate, very happy people and very alert," she said.

Divia Awuor, 36, is one of the servers with no qualifications, but she has a passion to learn.

"I am a dancer and a model. At my age, I still depended on support, but I'm happy that I'm now making a livelihood," Awuor said.

She and the other deaf waiters share one belief. "We are abled differently and can deliver services like normal people. Employers should thus give more of us a chance in work opportunities," she said.

'NO DISABILITIES'

Feisul concurs. He urges employers to employ disabled people like the deaf, for they have abilities, too, like abled people.

"To be honest, I do not see any disabilities in our team. I give my hearing-impaired employees 100 per cent in service delivery," he said.

He said he employed each of them because they are all fully capable and competent. 

"That being said, it has been rewarding to provide equal opportunities for these hardworking individuals,” he said.

Feisul, however, notes that deaf employees constantly despair in their capacity, and they need to be constantly trained to believe in themselves.

"The servers sometimes lose confidence because of how the community secludes them and doesn't relate with them. We have weekly evening training to help them build their trust, confidence and working relationships," he said.

He also emphasised that his hotel is not a project or an initiative for charity purposes. It is purely a normal business.

"I remit taxes for them. I pay them the required wage. It is operated like any other normal business, all protocols observed," he said. 

Currently, he has one cafe. Asked whether he will open more hotels like this, he said, "Why not? I will open more and expand to new locations. But for now, I am committed to making Pallet cafe as warm and sustainable as it can be," he said.

As we were leaving, we talked to  Li Chunli*, a regular Chinese customer at the cafe. She described her experience to us.

“The ambience and serenity is great here, and I’m glad I got to enjoy that with the food and drinks. The staff were very accommodating and friendly. I get to learn sign language as well,” she said.