With over 40 hearing- and speech-impaired employees working on the service front in three different branches, the Echoes restaurant chain is setting exemplary standards of inclusion.
A cheerful young man welcomes me as soon as I enter the Echoes restaurant in Bengaluru’s Koramangala, on a bright Friday noon. In sign language, he asks me the number of people accompanying me to accommodate a table. As I promptly reply with my limited sign language skills, he escorts me to a table and hands over a colourful menu along with a writing pad.
I’m soon joined over by Karthik Sagiraju, one of the co-owners of Echoes, Bengaluru. The 25-year-old now guides me through the special arrangements in his unique restaurant, which is mostly managed and run by specially-abled people who are hearing- and speech-impaired.
Karthik quit his job last year on the eve of International Workers Day to make a statement and start something new. “When my friends and I were looking to a start a new venture, we came in touch with the Delhi team of Echoes who encouraged us to expand the chain in Bengaluru. We began operations in March 2017 and we are overwhelmed by the amount of love Bengalureans have shown us in such a short span,” shares Karthik proudly.
I now swiftly glance over their menu and write an appropriate code on the writing pad, which is diligently picked up by another staff member.
“We have seen specially-abled people in the petrol pumps, malls and hotels mostly doing back-end jobs. They are everywhere amongst us, but the key is to employ them with a right job that gives them a sense of entitlement and identity,” says Karthik, adding, “more than the pay, it’s the joy of working in the mainstream that means a lot to them”.
In the middle of our conversation, I observe how one of their crew members brings back a confirmation slip of the order I placed minutes ago.
“The idea behind starting this place was to give customers a different dining experience. Initially, when we started, there were a few confusions when customers wrote the wrong code for their order, miscommunicated their customisations etc… We keep on innovating to solve issues such as these and that’s how the confirmation slip idea came about,” explains Karthik.
He also points towards a bunch of monochrome cards that read phrases like ‘please get the bill’, ‘good job’ etc., that customers can use to communicate efficiently with their hospitable staff.
We are now joined by Saif Ali Khan, head of service staff who, according to Karthik, is his “star performer and a true celebrity”. Saif joined the Bengaluru team after working in the Delhi branch for over a year. Ask him what’s the best part of working at Echoes and his faces brightens up with a radiant smile.
In sign language, he conveys: “All my life I have been taught how to do things; for the first time I’m teaching someone on the forefront and that’s gives me a lot of joy. Being among our community, communicating in sign language and guiding all the staff makes me feel important and worthy.”
Also, popular on social media circles as King Khan, Saif is humbled when I ask him about his online fame. He points towards a whiteboard at the entrance, when questioned about the best compliment he ever got. “I cherish every thank you or good job written on that board,” he says.
For 38-year-old Raghavendra, working at Echoes has been “fabulous”, as he signals in sign language again. “Till the time I’m able to work, I would like to work here only,” he shares with a reassuring smile. Karthik further praises his most punctual staff member and adds, “He has an excellent eye for detail and that’s what I love about him.”
Savouring my hot waffles, which Raghavendra serves me with an affable smile, I ask Karthik about the challenges involved in running this rather different restaurant. “Initially, the major challenge was the miscommunication between the kitchen staff and our specially-abled service staff. But now, there is better harmony as everyone working here is familiar with sign language,” he says.
Karthik rushes to manage huge crowds of hungry customers walking in to have their lunch. I ask young Vijaynedra, a student from Christ University, dining at the adjacent table to share his views about Echoes.
“I do not see any disability here. The service staff are very warm and friendly. We need more such inclusive, hospitable restaurants around,” he says.
Functioning out of three branches, two in Delhi and one in Bengaluru, the Echoes restaurant chain has seen a remarkable growth in just two years of operation. Started in 2015, Echoes had only about four to five specially-abled staff members when it began. The number now stands at an encouraging 50, with 16 of them working in the Bengaluru branch alone.
Serving a wide range of cuisines like American, Italian, Chinese and Continental, echoes sees an average footfall of 450-500 customers on weekdays, which goes up to 800 during the weekends. The average meal cost at this charming café is priced at an approximate Rs 750 for two people.
Sahib Sarna, one of the owners from Delhi terms the response Echoes has received as “terrific”, mentioning how much his team and he have enjoyed working with the specially-abled staff.
“They work with more precision, responsibility and detail for nuances. They are equally efficient, and the kind of social acceptance and love we have received so far is also proof of the same,” he shares.
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The Echoes team is estimating to clock a revenue of around Rs 7 crore in the current financial year. The restaurant chain is also on a quality expansion spree in the coming days, with the planned launch of new outlets that promise better experiences.
“Having a great ambience or an exotic line up of culinary delights can be the USP of many other eat-outs. However, what we wanted to offer was a dining experience that can touch people’s lives and encourage them to do what they love. I hope we have set an example in this regard,” Sahib concludes confidently.