Empowering the Deaf community: Anjan Manikumar, Founder and President, SIGNS Restaurant

By Steven Chester

Anjan Manikumar’s idea for his one-of-a-kind concept featuring an all-Deaf service staff came during encounters with a regular guest at a restaurant he previously managed.

“This guest used to come to my restaurant all the time and ordered food by pointing at items on the menu. I felt he wasn’t receiving good service,” explains Manikumar. “So I tried to learn some basic sign language. I went on Google and searched for signs that said ‘How are you?’ and ‘Nice to meet you’ and tried it with him when he came back. He was delighted to see me sign. Actually he started signing back really fast, and I had no idea what it was, but it was a great interaction! Then I thought wow, it would be really fun to have a restaurant staffed with Deaf people.”

At 16 years old, Manikumar cruised into the foodservice industry via a Burger King drive-thru, working the window there before becoming a dishwasher at another restaurant. Prep work, cooking jobs and service positions followed at various operations. He then held managerial positions at A&W, Burger King and Boston Pizza. He completed his MBA at Toronto’s Ryerson University in 2012, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.

Meeting the challenge

When he opened SIGNS Restaurant in downtown Toronto this past July, building a bridge between Deaf staff and the hearing public was his first challenge. Upon entering the restaurant, guests are welcomed by a hearing hostess who explains the basics. The menus are designed with American Sign Language (ASL) and are accompanied by a “cheat book” that shows patrons basic conversational sign language along with allergy-related or other menu-item modifications. Servers are equipped with iPads so that customers can review their order.

When it came time to staff the restaurant, Manikumar reached out to the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf and the Canadian Hearing Society for help. The job postings quickly garnered 300 applicants.

“We found out that 80 per cent of Deaf people are unemployed or underemployed,” says Manikumar. “Some of them told me stories about how they were working as dishwashers or janitors for a couple of years, and when the business closed down, and they’ve been jobless for many years. This is one of the reasons why we felt it’s a great opportunity, a great incentive to showcase their talents when otherwise they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so.”

Seasonal menu

The cuisine at the 150-seat restaurant is contemporary, and the atmosphere is casual. All food is made in-house from scratch, including all salad dressings, breads, French fries, desserts, and much of the food is sourced locally. Favourites include Butternut Squash Ravioli and Venison Shepherd’s Pie, and several vegetarian and vegan dishes are offered such as Sri Lankan Vegan Chick Pea Curry. The menu changes seasonally as ingredients become available.

Manikumar stresses the importance of his star chef, Marc Breton, to the restaurant’s success.

“He used to work as a chef for the Gladstone Hotel, and I think he’s fantastic. He loves the fact that we’re cooking everything in house from scratch. This is a restaurateur’s intuition when I say ‘this guy’s got it’ – it’s a very technical term we use,” laughs Manikumar. “He’s got the goods.”

With an eye to the future, Manikumar sees SIGNS becoming a tourist destination, as 60 to 70 per cent of the guests are international.

Fight for accessibility

Surprisingly, considering its concept, the biggest challenge right now for the business is its accessibility. The busy location at Yonge and Wellesley in downtown Toronto leaves little room for a wheelchair ramp. After checking with the city, Manikumar had a temporary ramp installed and was quickly asked to take it down by the city as it infringes on sidewalk space. The highly publicized battle has played out in the Toronto media, and at the time of this writing, the ramp is still up.

“It is an issue we have in terms of accessibility and because we really want to be a business which doesn’t discriminate against anybody,” Manikumar explains. “It’s not fair that a company can be turning away somebody with a disability, or their family and friends who use a wheelchair. We want to ensure that we are all-inclusive and accessible and set an example. The 2015 Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games are coming to the city soon, and thousands of Tourists requiring accessibility will be coming to our city. We have to show them that Toronto is accessible.”

Differentiation is key

Asked if he has any business tips for restaurateurs looking to start their own business, Manikumar stresses differentiation.

“I think it’s very important, from a business perspective, to have an understanding of what the restaurant’s concept is,” explains Manikumar. “The focus on food is very important, but it’s also important to have a good concept. There are a lot of restaurants around the world, and in Toronto we have over 10,000 restaurants. The level of competition is phenomenally high, so the restaurant should have some sort of strength that sets itself apart from the others.”

While once a competitive table tennis and chess player, the 28-year-old bachelor has put his interests aside while launching the restaurant, though he does spend some spare time organizing events for Ryerson alumni. He doesn’t see his passion subsiding any time in the future.

“We are more than a business. We are an all-inclusive business. We truly believe that regardless of a person’s race, sexual orientation or disability, we treat them as guests,” says Manikumar. “We feel it is important to understand that these are our core values. Our restaurant spreads a message of what Toronto is truly about, which is the fact that it is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world and we intend to build on that premise.”

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About the author

Steven Chester is the editor and social media community manager for Restaurant Central. His 14-year journalism background includes writing and editing for digital and traditional media. He is an expert in social media, online content and email newsletter development. Follow him on Twitter at @restaurantCRFN.

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