Echoes Café is a quaint and cozy hangout in south Delhi. What appears at first glance only to be a decent eatery, is actually much more than that. This one-of-a-kind establishment combines the idea of hospitality with the imperative of social responsibility.
The café is run by a staff of differently-abled employees, mostly people with speak and hearing impairments. Providing employment to people with physical disabilities is part of the café’s hiring policy. As of now, there are two branches of Echoes Café in Delhi, one in Hudson Lane and the other in Satya Niketan, which I visited recently.
As soon as I entered the café, a staff member greeted and welcomed me in. He guided me to the table using sign language. To make it convenient for customers to place orders, specific codes have been assigned to each and every dish on the menu. Notepads are provided to visitors who can write down their orders in the form of available codes.
Moreover, cue cards indicating basic instructions—like “forks and spoons please”, “menu please”, “clear the table” and so on—are available at the café too. Each table has a light bulb installed on it, which can be turned if customers want assistance.
The place is the brainchild of a group of six friends—Sahib Sarna, Shivansh Kanwar, Gaurav Kanwar, Sahil Gulati, Prateek Babbar and Kshitij Behl—who set out on this unique venture with an aim to contribute to society with their business enterprise.
According to the owners, Echoes Café is all about providing the differently-abled an opportunity to build careers and connect with the rest of society on an equal footing. Co-owner Sahib Sarna told us about how they came up with this idea. He said, “We always wanted to motivate young minds to follow their path. To do so, we had to present ourselves as leaders by example. Hence, we innovated and brought something new and creative to society. Differently-abled people are not less than any of us. So we thought in that direction.”
The café is not only unique in its concept but also serves amazing food. The venue offers a range of cuisines, including continental, Italian, Mexican, Chinese and American. From starters to main course and desserts, the menu has it all. The place is already quite popular among college students due to its accessible location, delicious food and hospitable staff. Also, one can enjoy sumptuous food at affordable prices here.
The interiors, too, have been designed in keeping with the spirit of the place. The walls of the café are painted with sign language to make communication easier between the staff and customers. The venue has a peaceful ambience where delectable food can be enjoyed with soft music playing in the background. Also, the café hosts open-stage events for artistes wishing to perform live at the café.
The café was established in 2015 with a single outlet in Delhi. Back then, there were only 4-5 staff members. After receiving a positive response from customers, the café extended its reach by opening two more outlets—one in Delhi and another in Bangalore. “We got phenomenal response from the students as well as the families which visited us. Everyone has appreciated our efforts. The brand been working effectively towards empowering the differently-abled,” Sahib said. Now, there are 50 staff members in total at all the three outlets of Echoes Café.
A staff member, Prince, shared with me his thoughts on being part of Echoes Café. I interacted with him through an interpreter, Manoranjan Kumar, who translated Prince›s response from sign language into English. “I love serving and interacting with the guests here. The feeling of getting employed amongst the people like me is amazing. I am more confident than ever before and feel happy when customers try to talk to me in sign language.”
In the early days, though, communication between the staff and customers was slightly challenging. Elaborating on which, Sahib Sarna said, “Earlier, customers used to call managers for every small issue that they faced while interacting with the staff. But after a few days of training, the staff was able to manage guests without the manager’s help.”
A newly employed staff member, Arun, also shared his experience of facing problems in understanding the customers during his initial days at the restaurant. (His response, too, was interpreted for us by Manoranjan Kumar.) “Earlier, I faced problems in distinguishing between vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. But with the proper guidance, I got familiar with the food menu and was able to cater well to the customers.”
So how did the owners manage to recruit an entire staff of differently-abled people? The Noida Deaf Society and other NGOs played a major role in the process. Sahib told us, “We were not only helped by these organisations, but they also motivated us to go ahead with the project.”