Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

‘I Wanted The PWDs to Move From the Backend to the Frontend’

A chef by training, Kshitij Behl has been running Echoes-SoS, a café in New Delhi’s Satya Niketan that employs people with hearing and speech impairment. Here guests are greeted with smiles, sign language symbols on walls, light bulbs on tables to call servers and notepads to write orders. Built differently, the café is where one learns about the immense abilities of differently abled people. You are also requested to empathise with them and not necessarily sympathise, says the founder of the café in an interview with Jyoti Verma
July 4, 2022
Echoes cafe staff

Tell us about your journey.

In 2015, when we started in December, I was trying to quit my job. I was very passionate about doing something of my own. I was a chef and wanted to work for myself. I decided to open a café, my dream café. I was passionate about food from the eighth standard when I made up my mind to be a chef one day. I wanted my café to be a place with which people could connect. I wanted it to be a light, vibrant and positive place, which should give out the message that anyone can achieve anything in one’s life if one is focused on it.

In our hotel management journey, a lesson we are all taught is to be out-of-the-box. When I was trying to think out of the box and do something different to attract people and yet do something where I could give back to society and the environment, an idea came from the big hotel chains and corporate houses I had worked with. These companies have been hiring persons with disabilities (PwDs) under their corporate social responsibility programmes, but always keep them at the backend and will never let you see them. They believe that someone’s mistake will tarnish their name. They have huge brand values at stake and do not want it to be hampered or played with.

I wanted these PwDs to move from the backend to the frontend. I had interacted with them in hotels and knew how expressive, interactive and talented they are. My idea was to put these people in front, directly interacting with people, to help their positivity spread around. There is nothing better than seeing a person with a disability working in a milieu flawlessly. It is like someone with a genuine excuse in life but still not using it and trying to overcome it. There is a clear message that if they can do their work flawlessly then definitely, we can too. However, it was easier said than done. The first time I told parents about opening a café where deaf and mute people could work, they appreciated it, but could not understand how guests would talk to them, how guests would order if they need something and how we would make them understand.

We started by answering these questions. Initially, we had a card that said that this is a place served by differently abled people so please help us with the initiative. The card would let people know about us. With technological advances, soon there was an idea to use tablets for guests to order. However, using tabs could have hindered the interactions our staff had with guests, so the idea was dropped. We then customised a writing pad to give a unique code to every food item on the menu… it’s just a two-digit code. Like, instead of writing the whole name of the dish, one had to simply mention a two-digit code on the notepad for the staff to take the order.

The first time I told my parents about opening a café where deaf and mute people could work, they appreciated it, but could not understand how guests would talk to them, how guests would order

In case a guest needs customisation, like making the dish less spicy, more cheesy or less greasy, they can mention it on the writing pad. All these steps started out as an experiment but worked out really well. People loved the idea. Ordering the food through a writing pad also helped us operationally, as now we had double proof of the order placed, that too written in the guest’s own handwriting, leaving no room for any confusion. We also added a light bulb to each table to help guests reorder or check with the staff about anything.
Echoes cafe interiors wall
We also got cue cards for guests to share their experiences at the café. Initially, we started with just six cards. Soon, customers gave ideas for other cue cards, largely to appreciate the servers. Today, we also have a corner where customers leave handwritten notes about their experience at the café.

Looking at our focus and commitment to diversity and inclusiveness, many people suggested we apply for a patent for the process of running such a business. I was not in favour of the patent, but wanted people to pick ideas from us and try them at their own places. The main message is that even if this is a business, we as a society should do things to help increase the utilisation of the differently abled in businesses. We never went ahead with the idea of a patent or something similar, as we wanted more and more people to replicate our model and make their businesses out-of- the-box.

How was the public response initially when you opened?

We were sceptical initially, as society primarily focuses on the negatives and is happy to ignore the positives. Many people may think that we are trying to utilise the PwDs for our own benefit. So, in the early days, we did not market ourselves as we wanted to see how people reacted to our concept. When we finally opened our doors to people, we received a tremendous response. Visitors—from families to the youth—used to get emotional. There were incidents that showed that we were doing something that is bringing a change in people. We realised that we are on the right path.

In case a guest needs customisation, like making the dish less spicy, more cheesy or less greasy, they can mention it on the writing pad. All these steps started out as an experiment

The best part of our story is that our staff is happy. They are not only earning as per market standards but also confident of achieving anything in their lives. We have a limit to hiring people at the café. Sometimes, people who are really in need visit us. Since we are unable to help them, we try and use our connections with certain hotels to get them to work. All my servers are with me for more than seven years now. This is the first café that I opened. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we had to shut down. We were shut for more than a year and suffered losses. We had to let people go at that time. We tried our best to support them as long as our pockets allowed it. When we finally reopened, many of these people, who had moved on to other jobs like being delivery persons with Amazon or others, called us to rejoin.

Today, these people are more than colleagues. I love working and interacting with them. I am not well-versed in sign language, but we have developed our own unique sign language. It’s our language that only we can understand!

Where do you see the concept in the next five years?

After two years of the pandemic, we wanted to start again. We wanted to build the brand again. Before the pandemic, we had hired about 70 differently abled people. We had expanded to five cities and were happy to be growing as a brand. We were growing as a chain and as a family. We have now started again and with the same goal: to grow and reach maximum people across cities. We are open for all sorts of opportunities, like if someone wants to partner with us or be a franchise or invest with us. We want our concept to reach maximum people, so that we can grow again as a family and can impact more lives.
Echoes cafe interior
We are also even researching different forms of disabilities so that we are not just restricted to deaf and mute people. There are some hotel chains that are working with people with Down’s syndrome. We are trying to get into an arrangement where we can share our knowledge and widen our employee base to include people with Down’s syndrome. We want to reach more differently abled people. There was this place that was hiring acid attack survivors. I was really impressed by the idea. It is giving a new life to people who felt everything was over. So, that is how we want to expand, by including people with different types of disabilities.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we had to shut. We were shut for more than a year and suffered losses. We had to let people go at that time. We tried our best to support them as long as our pockets allowed

In terms of location, we are scouting for a second location in Delhi. This café, in Satya Niketan, is where we started in 2015. This is also the place where I wanted to start again (after the Covid-19 shutdown). I would love to reach other cities.

After opening five outlets, we ended up with none due to the pandemic. We have started again. In the next five years, we should expand to a minimum of around 30 outlets, not just in India but even overseas. There was an opportunity in the past when we were planning to expand to Dubai or Canada, but unfortunately, Covid-19 hit and all of those opportunities disappeared. We are still waiting for the right opportunity. We are open to both models, franchise or investment.

In future, the theme of the restaurant will change as per the time of day. During lunch, the place will be quiet with soulful music and a peaceful vibe. In the evening, from 7 pm to 8 pm, we will have loud music and a lot of party lighting. After 10 pm, the place will turn into a kind of a club where there will be a full-blown party going on with people dancing.

In terms of staff members, we currently have seven deaf-mute people. One of them is a girl. We wanted to have a girl as we wanted to be more inclusive. Soon, we will be expanding. I want this family to grow manifold.

How has Echoes changed the attitude of society?

People are more responsible and respectful towards differently abled people today. But, more than that, they are shocked to see their abilities. They never believed PwDs could be that capable. Now this is a problem with us as a society. We try and sympathise, but we do not empathise with people. Sympathy is not going to get them anything, but doing something with them will help them. Instead of focusing on their disability, we need to focus on their abilities. Once we start doing that, everything will change.

We have a dedicated ministry for both differently abled and skill development. Do you plan to work with them to take your initiative ahead?

So far, we have not approached any government agency as we are trying to build the brand again. However, we are definitely open to initiatives and partnerships with both the public and private sectors. We would love to collaborate if an opportunity arrived.

With skills, people gain confidence, and even if not with Echoes, the PwDs can work in any hotel or business. The only skill development we are doing currently is with the staff. We try and train them regarding new things. We started with hiring them as servers and training them for restaurant service, but now we are expanding their horizon. We are pushing their limits. We are trying to give them more skills and trying to look at ways to incorporate them in the kitchen.

In terms of staff members, we currently have seven deaf-mute people. One of them is a girl. We wanted to have a girl as we wanted to be more inclusive. Soon, we will be expanding and grow

The kitchen is a hazardous environment. There are a lot of things and a lot of shouting among the chefs because you have to be alert. You are always surrounded by things that are sharp and can burn you. Sometimes one is carrying hot food. Then there are people who are too lost in food and conversations. Here, we want solutions that can alert the differently abled in case of an emergency.

We are looking for ways to get the PwDs into the kitchens. Rather than helping them work in the kitchens, we have pushed them towards managerial roles. Today, we have PwD trainers, managers and supervisors, who are supervising a certain number of people as well as training them simultaneously. Going forward, we must also have courses in culinary art and other trades that help them become further empowered.

Until that happens, we can use the differently abled in the cold kitchen and bakery. Once we start getting them in, that is when everyone around them will start adapting to the new culture. Until we have that one person in the kitchen who is physically disabled or who has a certain form of disability, nobody around him or her would adapt to such a situation.

How have you changed after working with the differently abled?

I have learned many things about them. First, they are talented and quite capable despite their disabilities. It’s we who need to focus on this aspect. If we started looking at their abilities rather than their disabilities, the world would change. I have seen that change in my own life. I never knew sign language. Then, I learnt this new language. Today, it helps me in not only communicating with my staff members, but also with others when I go out and find a differently abled person. I am able to talk to that person and that makes me happy. That person is also equally happy when they find a normal person trying to talk to them in sign language.

Jyoti Verma

The writer is a media professional based in Delhi. She has been writing on diverse subjects, including sustainable businesses, environment and climate change, health and education and others.