Swapnil Deshmukh’s first encounter with a restaurant hiring exclusively deaf staff was on holiday in Vietnam in 2017, when his server handed him a menu with a pen and a note paper without saying a word.
“I didn’t know the staff were deaf. I asked where to sit and what to do but I didn’t get a response. Then I read the menu, it said: ‘All our staff are deaf, please write what you want. There is no Wi-Fi, no music and we ask that our guests do not talk,’” Deshmukh explains.
At that time, Indian national Deshmukh was vice-president of digital banking for Maybank in Cambodia. But his experience in Vietnam inspired him, leaving him curious about how he could apply the concept in Cambodia.
Soon after the 36-year-old left his job in banking and decided to travel the world to learn about coffee. And despite not having any experience in running a cafe, he decided to return to Cambodia and establish Socials Coffee and Humanity. The concept was simple; a socially responsible enterprise set up with the aim of generating employment opportunities for the deaf and non-verbal community.
But though Socials has a socially conscious element, he doesn’t see the deaf and non-verbal community as people to be pitied.
“Deaf people don’t need sympathy. They need opportunity to work and we are providing that opportunity. In fact, we want other coffee shops and other businesses to hire deaf and non-verbal people,” he said.
At first, finding a location for his new venture was a new challenge, but he forged a partnership with PPCBank that solved this problem.
“I started to look for locations in BKK 1 and Tuol Tumpoung but they are so expensive. If I tried to start like Brown [Coffee Company] and Starbucks, I would have failed. They are big companies and I am just on my own. But we partnered with PPCBank, and we now have a branch actually inside the bank."
“The first opened in PPCBank on Preah Monivong Boulevard in November, with a second opening in Orussey in December, and a third one is to be launched in February. Before bank customers had to wait 30 minutes before the bank opened. Now customers are happy that they can have a drink and support deaf people while they do it,” he said.
Meng Huoy, a 28-year-old from Tboung Khmum province who was born deaf, is one of Socials’ three non-verbal employees. He learned sign language at the Deaf Development Programme (DDP) – a Cambodian charity helping deaf and non-verbal people integrate into society – and was provided on-the-job training at Socials.
Huoy is now able to communicate with other non-verbal people and even with his coworkers thanks to the training he received.Through a sign language interpreter, Huoy said he did not think he would be able to find employment in a coffee shop, adding that it made him happy to have the same opportunities as other people.
Deshmukh said even non-deaf employees were required to undergo training in order for them to communicate with their co-workers.
“We invite a teacher from DDP to teach us how to communicate with deaf people. It is easy for us to work with them. All employees, including me, also study sign language,” he said.
Prom Phally, a 23-year-old with three years’ experience working in a coffee shop, said she enjoyed studying sign language to communicate with her colleagues and that there were no issues so far.
Besides its socially conscious goals, Socials also provides unusual beverages inspired by Deshmukh’s experiences abroad. The most popular drinks are Iced Coconut Latte, Avocado Espresso and Iced Hazelnut Latte.
Socials is currently looking for partners to establish new locations, including universities. Its branches are open between 8AM and 4PM on weekdays. For more information, please visit Socials’ Facebook page: @ilovesocials or call: 016 888 216.