Cafes employing staff with disabilities find taste trumps all



Walking into Sign with Me, a soup cafe in Tokyo, customers are greeted not by the typical irasshaimase shouts of welcome, but sign language and gestures from the courteous staff.

The cafe’s hearing-impaired owner, Masahiro Yanagi, 43, used to be a facilitator for hiring disabled people at large corporations. He recalled how often hearing-impaired people would quit after being unable to participate in casual conversations or discussions, or finding it difficult to communicate about work issues or share in a consensus when problems arise.

“Perhaps we can create a (business) model in which people who can hear are welcomed into the world of those who cannot,” Yanagi thought before opening the eatery in December 2011.

He wanted to build a sustainable business without relying on public subsidies or other forms of financial assistance, and took hints from successful Indian and Chinese restaurants that were doing well even though all their staff were not fluent in Japanese.

“Taste has the power to surpass bias and prejudice,” Yanagi said.

Among the companies Yanagi approached in search of a franchise contract, the president of Soup & Innovation Co., which operates soup bars nationwide, agreed to supply recipes and products as well as provide management guidance.

“It would be a waste to have such highly capable and talented people engage only in menial tasks,” said Yasushi Muroga, the Nagano-based company’s president.

Now in its fifth year in business, about 90 percent of the customers at Sign with Me are people without disabilities. While some may appear perplexed on their first visit, many felt a refreshing novelty in the use of sign language, which is the main language used by the staff and its patrons.

“As Japan has become so developed that there is little room left for new stimulation, we see people who actually seek barriers. This is thus a concept of ‘barrier value,’ ” Yanagi said, referring to the idea of creating value from one’s disability.

Similarly, another successful operation run by people with disabilities is Machiya Cafe Sawasawa in Kyoto, where 15 visually impaired employees, including some who are totally blind, wait on customers.

The place was initially a venue for the visually impaired. In 2013, with subsidies from local authorities and other sources, it turned into a business to support the employment of the disabled and has since become a cafe frequented by tourists and area residents.

“I used to feel it was a great bother to venture outside, but now it is a delight to come here four days a week,” 65-year-old Setsuko Goto, whose vision was compromised by illness, said with a smile.

Thanks to special devices, including measuring devices that speak, even the blind can serve up a perfect cup of coffee.

The cafe’s director is Junya Kanamori, 24, who lost vision in his right eye as a university student. “People tend to immediately think of the visually impaired as masseuses and masseurs,” Kanamori said. “We want to show that with innovation and planning, it is possible to broaden the fields they can work in and hopefully lead to regular employment.”

New legislation along with a revised law to take effect from April will prohibit discrimination based on disabilities. Employers will also be required to make necessary arrangements in response to requests from disabled employees to enable them to fully demonstrate their capabilities.

“Corporations tend to stereotype those with disabilities, deciding that they are suitable for certain types of work and incapable of certain other tasks,” said Eiko Mizuno, a senior research fellow at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

“I hope (companies) will take the existence of these cafes as a reference and contemplate workplace development from a new perspective,” Mizuno said.