A unique eatery in Hyderabad has been catching the attention of several residents for being a restaurant with a difference.
Talking Hands, a restaurant situated in Begumpet, is a social enterprise started by TKM Sandeep and Miryala Ramya where all the waiters who greet and serve you are hearing-impaired.
The doors open to a deafening silence, only for the customer to be greeted and received warmly by the staff.
Speaking to TNM, Ramya said that she and Sandeep came from a background of social work. They founded and operate the Deaf Enabled Foundation (DEF).
"DEF was involved in vocational training, to educate and skill hearing-impaired people. Because of this, we were in touch with the Telangana government as we were organising events and other such things," Ramya narrates.
Ramya says that B Venkatesham, the Telangana Tourism Secretary, was interested in sign language and tapping the potential of hearing-impaired persons.
"He wanted to start a restaurant owned and run by the deaf, and he kept asking us. We are an NGO. How could we run a business? We were puzzled. However, he pointed out to us that an older restaurant had shut down and the Telangana Tourism department was looking for someone else to open shop at the location," Ramya says.
After long discussions, they decided to take the plunge.
"We said that we would need support, following which Mr Sandeep offered us the premises free of charge, for one year. A donation of Rs 10 lakh was also organised to help us, and the rest of the money came from DEF," she adds.
"We signed an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the government in May, and the next two months was really hectic. We had to do so much research on how to run a business and a restaurant," Ramya says.
"We trained several students from DEF itself, we recruited employees, tied up with vendors, and even invested in infrastructure. There were several challenges - waiters were trained on everything, including to stand the whole day. It was almost like a military training program," she adds with a chuckle.
However, the staff was determined and the restaurant opened its doors on August 20.
Customers who enter the restaurant are greeted with smiles and offered a table, once they show how many seats they would like.
The walls are adorned with posters explaining the alphabet in Indian sign language, along with common expressions like 'sorry', 'thank you', 'welcome' etc., which also allow the customer to learn basic gestures and communicate effectively.
The table mats also have the gestures printed on them, while the menu card also is largely designed in a way that makes it easy to order in sign language.
"The entire administration and management is deaf. Only the kitchen staff in the restaurant are not hearing-impaired," Ramya explains.
"To get around the communication gap, we have a restaurant manager and a kitchen supervisor, who coordinate and ensure that the orders are rightly placed and delivered quickly. The waiters have been learning a lot, and have settled down since September," she adds.
If someone, like an aged person for example, has a problem with communicating the order, the restaurant manager is available to help.
There is also no music played in the restaurant, on purpose, to ensure that the customer learns sign language.
"Many customers know that it is a themed-restaurant, but some of them just happen to stumble in. They are quite puzzled at first, but seeing that our waiters receive them warmly and ensure that they are comfortable, they also go back with smiles on their faces," she says.
Speaking about Sandeep, the CEO of the DEF, who himself is deaf, Ramya says, "We could not predict how this would turn out, but he had the confidence in him and motivated all of us. We are happy after seeing the result."
Now, the restaurant is also hosting several group parties, and has received positive feedback. While there are eight members as part of the front staff, the restaurant employs a total of 25 people.
Talking about their future plans, Ramya says, "We plan to start a culinary school for deaf people, as we will be able to train them or get them an internship in our restaurant and they will get a certificate from the Telangana government, which will broaden their scope."