Starbucks opens first US-based sign language store staffed with deaf and hard of hearing employees

While ordering your favorite brew is just part of a morning routine, it can be a bit more difficult for the deaf and hard of hearing. Because of that challenge, one Starbucks is about to get a lot more hands-on — literally.

The first ever United States-based signing Starbucks opening Tuesday, focused on deaf and hard of hearing customers.

Starting out with a staff of 25 — most of whom are deaf or hard of hearing, or fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) — the innovative location is just blocks away from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C, the only school of its kind in the world for the deaf and hard of hearing.

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Starbucks has opened their first signing cafe in America.

Starbucks has opened their first signing cafe in America. (Starbucks)

Tommy Horejes, the Associate Provost of Student Success and Academic Quality at Gallaudet University, has been working with the coffee giant as they’ve trained students. He said his goal was to make sure the store is serving not only coffee but the community.

“It goes way beyond just a collaboration between Gallaudet and Starbucks,” Horejes said. "This is an opportunity to really show the importance of the value of culture and language and diversity."

Starbucks Mid-Atlantic Regional Vice President Camille Hymes has been helping with the Starbucks design, and staffing it up with employees who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“It's not just the connection but it's also providing opportunities for all which include job opportunities and career advancement,” Hymes said.

It’s starting with a staff of 25, most of whom are deaf or hard of hearing, or are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).

It’s starting with a staff of 25, most of whom are deaf or hard of hearing, or are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). (Starbucks)

Gallaudet University alumnus Matthew Gilsbach is the store’s first manager, returning to the area 10 years after graduation. He said it’s an honor for him to be part of the project and work closely with the university where he says he discovered his identity as a deaf person.

“We can be a profitable store. Take the risk,” Gilsbach said. "Hire deaf people and people with disabilities and hard of hearing people."

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This Starbucks was completely redesigned from the ground up to make communication easier. The tables and counters are lower than in other stores, there’s more natural light, non-reflective surfaces, open floor plan sightlines, and no music playing overhead.

Outside the store, “STARBUCKS” is spelled out in ASL by giant hands, and an ASL alphabet chart hangs by the door.

For those who want to learn a language with their lattes, there’s an ASL sign of the week (the opening week word was “coffee”) and merchandise exclusively designed for Starbucks by a deaf artist and Gallaudet alumnus.

There are several ways to order inside: signing your order in ASL, pointing at a picture menu, or using a tablet to write your order and your name.

There are several ways to order inside: signing your order in ASL, pointing at a picture menu, or using a tablet to write your order and your name. (Starbucks)

There are several ways to order inside: Signing your order in ASL, pointing at a picture menu, or using a tablet to write your order and your name. That means, of all the Starbucks, this one will almost certainly get your name spelled right on the cup.

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“It will be more accurate than most stores. I can guarantee that,” Gilsbach joked.

And if you need a drink fixed, there’s a dual keyboard near the pick-up counter that allows customers to message with a barista. While those who are not deaf or hard of hearing may find it different, Starbucks and Gallaudet hope it gives others a new perspective.

“We're able to really start creating those bridges between the hearing communities and the deaf and hard of hearing communities,” Horejes said.

Gilsbach and Horejes said while they anticipate people to enjoy learning about the community, both admit there are those who may be uncomfortable with the idea.

There's only one other Starbucks like this in the world in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

There's only one other Starbucks like this in the world in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Starbucks)

“It'll be a slow process but we are providing the Starbucks experience in the same way that we provide the Starbucks experience in any other store and we're going to change people's minds,” Gilsbach said.

“It's not just about hearing, deaf, or hard of hearing consumers getting coffee, but a lot more,” added Horejes.

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There's only one other Starbucks like this in the world in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hymes says Starbucks hopes to share what they learn with this store to not only expand their brand, but help others tap into this customer base too.

“We know that with our size and scale comes great responsibility and we see that there is an opportunity to make a meaningful difference,” Hymes said.