On Tuesday, Starbucks opened its first U.S. "Signing Store" in Washington, D.C., with an entire staff of employees who know American Sign Language.
The store at 6th and H Street NE replaced an existing cafe that's "just down the street" from Gallaudet University, a 154-year-old school that was designed for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to a news release issued Tuesday.
“This is a first for us, and though it’s a mix of hearing, hard of hearing and deaf partners, the common denominator is sign language, which puts everybody on an equal footing,” Marthalee Galeota, senior manager for accessibility at Starbucks, said in the release.
The new Signing Store was inspired by a similar cafe that opened in Malaysia in 2016 with nine hearing impaired employees.
What is the store like?
Starbucks designed the store with accessibility in mind.
The Signing Store has more open space than its traditional cafes, it has anti-glare surfaces, and visual displays for patrons to check and pick up their orders.
Above the register, there will be a "sign of the week" chalkboard that will show hearing customers how to sign words such as coffee or espresso and give them an opportunity to place an order without saying a word.
“We really want people to experience the excitement of talking to somebody differently than they might have before,” Galeota said. “All the barriers are gone from being able to communicate, or from people being able to demonstrate their skills and show off the talent they have. We think this store celebrates the culture of human connection on a deep level.”
What did the National Association of the Deaf say?
Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, attended Monday night's event where he applauded the Seattle-based coffee chain for its "innovative approach" to employment opportunities for the hearing impaired community.
"The National Association of the Deaf applauds Starbucks for opening a Signing Store that employs Deaf and hard of hearing people," Rosenblum said during a pre-opening celebration at the cafe Monday night, according to the release. "Starbucks has taken an innovative approach to incorporating Deaf Culture that will increase employment opportunities as well as accessibility for Deaf and hard of hearing people, while at the same time educating and enlightening society."
Rosenblum also encouraged other companies to follow Starbucks' lead.
“We are making history. You are here. Remember where you were this date,” Rosenblum told everyone at the celebration. “I want to see many more of these. Please lead the way for other corporations and other businesses to open other signing stores and restaurants, starting this evening. Starting right here."
The Starbucks Foundation presented Rosenblum with a $50,000 donation to the National Association of the Deaf.
Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin popped in the store on Tuesday and tweeted a video of herself ordering her beverage in sign language.
"It’s official! #StarbucksSigns. Today @Starbucks opens its first signing/ASL store in Washington DC!" she tweeted.
Matlin, who is deaf, was also on-hand at the pre-opening event.
Starbucks said it has more than 200 deaf employees worldwide.