Every server speaks sign language in a new deaf-friendly Starbucks store

A sign for coffee.
A sign for coffee.
Image: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo
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So how exactly do you say “frappuccino” using only your hands?

At a new Starbucks location in Washington, DC, every staff member is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and the store is tailored to a deaf clientele. The Seattle-based coffee chain is calling this location “The Signing Store,” and it’s located near Gallaudet University, the world’s only university designed specifically for those who are deaf.

Stepping up to the counter to order, there are a variety of options. Customers can write out their orders on tablets that have been provided or they can sign. There are also more nuanced differences to this single location. The ambient music ubiquitous to most coffee shops is nowhere to be heard, the seats and individual tables are lower to help with visibility, and surfaces have a matte finish to avoid glare.

The store is the second Starbucks has opened that caters to the deaf, the first in the US. The chain in 2016 hired nine deaf partners to work at the first Signing Store in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In the US location, the chain is hiring 20 to 25 deaf employees to man the operation. All non-deaf hires will be fluent in ASL.

Basic words such as “coffee,” “milk,” and “thank you” have designated hand signs, but for branded words invented by Starbucks—items such as frappuccino—customers are left to point at, write down, or spell their orders out.

“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,” said Starbucks accessibility manager Marthalee Galeota in a statement. “We think this store celebrates the culture of human connection on a deep level.”