Unique Nairobi restaurant where deaf waiters use sign language

Sunday March 24 2019

Pallet Cafe in Nairobi,  Edward Gitau

Mr Mohamed Maalim, a customer, is served by Edward Gitau, deaf waiter at Pallet Cafe in Nairobi. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

KAREN MBUYA MURIUKI
By KAREN MBUYA MURIUKI
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Dressed in all black attire, a number of waiters take orders from customers at a rustic outdoor cafe.

The restaurant, located on James Gichuru Road, has been open for the past one and a half months and is slowly gaining popularity and becoming a fixture for food and coffee lovers.

And there is a unique reason that draws in some clients. Four of the 15 employees at Pallet Cafe have hearing impairment. Among them are 24-year-old Edward Gitau and 35-year-old Boniface Oketch.

ENJOY WORK

The latter has worked at the cafe since business started running.

Edward was an artisan in his hometown of Ol Kalou before he moved to Nairobi to seek employment. Working at the cafe has been his best experience yet, he says.

“It’s fresh here,” he said, laughing. “There is a big difference between the working environment here and in Ol Kalou, especially when it comes to communication. Here, people understand my disability and are always willing to help wherever they can. They try to integrate me into the community”

He says he is comfortable working here 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.

Edward hopes that people with disabilities will be included in more employment areas, and he hopes to be part of that change.

On the other hand, Boniface was a basketball teacher. Before that, he used to play the same for the Kenyan disabled team. He says he is entirely grateful for the employment opportunity he received at the cafe.

“The payment is definitely better here. It is a good thing that we have been given an opportunity to show our skills. I foresee a growth in the inclusion of minorities in formal employment like us.”

He adds, “I enjoy working here because of the co-operation and understanding I receive from both the staff and the clients. Only a few people at my former job gave me a chance to do anything, which is a completely different thing from working here.”

OPPORTUNITY

He looks forward to growing with Pallet Cafe, and finally starting a family in the city.

The cafe’s founder, Fazul Hussein, was inspired to expand his hiring policies so that he could give people living with such a disability a chance for employment and to improve their self-confidence.

“It is challenging for disabled people to obtain employment around the continent, yet they can be fully capable of any work. I wanted to give people with the capacity to work a chance for employment so that they have equal opportunity just like others,” he said.

Fazul ensures the waiters receive training before working at the cafe, as much as they are constantly being exposed and trained on the job.

And because he needed people who were a little bit trained for the job, he talked to the Council for Persons with Disabilities. Edward, for example, is an alumni of the Karen Technical Training Institute for the Deaf.

Currently, his team has weekly evening trainings to have them explore the entire menu, act as a social event, and build on their trust, confidence, and working relationships.

“We created a menu that is friendly for all that come to the restaurant, as well as the staff members,” said Fazul as he described the ordering procedure at the cafe.

A customer is greeted through sign language and shown to a table by one of the wait-staff as soon as they step into the cafe. They are then offered the menu as soon as they have their seats.

Pallet Cafe in Nairobi

Susan Watkins (right) listens and interprets Edwin Gitau’s (left) and Boniface Oketch’s responses during the interview at the Pallet Cafe in Nairobi. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The front page of the menu has basic sign language on it which they can use to order food items, mostly coffee. The customers, as Fazul explains, are highly encouraged to have conversations with the wait-staff, who usually are excited to help customers learn basic sign language.

On high alert

Given that the waiters cannot hear, they tend to be 100 per cent alert, constantly scanning to see if customers require attendance.

When a customer finally decides on what they would like, they can signal over to a waiter to take their order. The customer can point on 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, together with a pen.

“We appreciate the latter because writing the order down makes communication easier for the customer, the waiters and the kitchen staff too.”

Susan Watkins is an abled staff at the cafe. She is part of the team that trained the waiters before they started their respective jobs there. She is always within the background, ready to take care of communication hitches.

“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,” she said.

The staff understand whenever a customer does not realise they are impaired, especially because of being in the service industry.

NEW LOCATIONS

Getting the right equipment to enhance communication between the wait and kitchen staff has proven to be a big challenge for Fazul, something he says, like any other start-up, he hopes to curb soon.

Despite that, he says that his entire team has been able and proficient and that he is filled with immense joy and happiness knowing that he is part of it.

No disabilities in our team

He said, “To be honest, we do not see any disabilities in our team. I employed each one 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.”

Fazul is happy to be getting more clients each passing day, something he attributes to the wide selection of foods and drinks from the menu.

“Customer referrals based on favourite foods seems to be common. Based on the options we have on the menu, all food preferences from vegan to a healthy selection of gourmet items, ensure every customer is covered.”

Fazul has plans of expanding to new locations. But for now he is committed to making Pallet Cafe as warm and sustainable as can be.

As we were leaving, we talked to Mohamed Maalim, a second-time customer at the cafe. He described his two experiences as pleasant.

“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 would definitely recommend anyone to pay a visit,” he remarked.

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