To Gather Cafe: first-of-its-kind venue supports Dubai’s deaf community

Order your drink in sign language at this newly opened UAE venue, which employs people who are hearing-impaired

Dubai may have many food and beverage outlets, but a new venue is winning hearts thanks to its unique concept.

To Gather Cafe, which opened last month, claims to be the first cafe for deaf people in Dubai, although Ali Binhammad, one of the founders, says it is a place for all to come together. “We wanted everyone to be welcome here," he tells The National. "That’s why we named it To Gather Cafe."

The hole-in-the-wall venue is located in Meyan Mall, with a posh seating area in the mall’s main lobby and the kitchen a little farther away. On the menu are a number of hot and cold drinks, from Spanish lattes and Americanos to flat whites and hot chocolate, while the V60 is a bestseller, as are the slices of cake, the flavours of which rotate every week.

It might look like any other cafe, but the uniqueness of the concept lies with its staff. To Gather Cafe primarily hires staff who are deaf; 60 per cent of employees have a hearing-impairment.

“The most important thing was giving them a job, because not a lot of other employers hire them, and that makes them feel like they are less in some way,” says Binhammad.

It is the brainchild of four Emirati entrepreneurs – Binhammad, Omar Rashed, Asma Al Bloshy and Maryam Mohammed – and Mohammed came up with the idea after seeing that it worked in other countries.

At the moment, staff with a hearing-impairment are in customer-facing positions, such as waiters, but there are plans to upskill them by training them to become baristas, thus helping their employment prospects, says Binhammad.

“We’ve outsourced suppliers for the cakes for now. We won’t be making those in house for now, as we first have to train all the staff to make all the beverages first.”

A cafe with a purpose

The idea behind the cafe is bigger than simply providing employment for those in the deaf community, though. It's also about teaching customers how to interact with people who can't hear.

On the menu are pictures of the hand gestures used for the sign language terms for each drink, which will help people to order their beverage or baked treat from a waiter who is deaf. It also shows sign language for common phrases such as “yes”, “no”, “thank you” and “how are you?”

“There are some customers who think sign language is very hard, and we want to break this idea,” says Binhammad. It also encourages customers to interact with the staff. “You can ask them what is good, what’s a bestseller, their opinion on the drink. It’s not just about ordering and leaving.

“We first made the menu in Arabic sign language, but it caused a bit of confusion as some of our staff are trained in American Sign Language. So we are now redoing the menu so that it standardises it to American Sign Language.”

In the future, there are plans to have an animated iPad menu that shows guests how to use sign language.

It may have opened only a month ago, but it’s already getting rave reviews. Anonymous critic the Food Sheikh, who visited the venue recently, told The National that it’s “cute and the coffee is pretty good. There are so many coffee options in the UAE; it's refreshing to find a flat white with a higher purpose.”

Food Sheikh promoted the cafe on social media, too. “The most important one is the word ‘coffee’," he wrote in the post, going on to explain how to use sign language. "Make two fists and put one on top of the other. Think of the movement of an old coffee grinder. The bottom hand stays still while the top hand turns the crank.”

Not everyone is so quick to embrace the idea, however, Binhammad admits. “Not everyone wants to learn sign language. People are afraid of change, and we are forcing them to learn something new.”

He understands it might take time, but if the concept takes off, he hopes to increase the number of deaf staff, and hasn't ruled out the possibility of opening another branch either.

Open daily; noon-11pm; Meyan Mall, Dubai; Instagram: @togather.cafe

Updated: November 8th 2021, 9:31 AM