MALAYSIA - Thinking out of the box helped Dr Allen Teh merge two things he is passionate about: Hawaiian coffee and helping deaf or hearing-impaired Malaysians join the workforce.
The result was the setting up of the Deaf in Business (DiB) Coffees of Hawaii at Bandar Damansara Perdana in Petaling Jaya in January.
The Hawaiian-themed cafe serves authentic Hawaiian coffee and tisanes (herbal tea) and is 100 per cent run by deaf and hard-of-hearing staff.
At DiB, the hearing- impaired learn to prepare food and drinks for a simple cafe-style menu guided in food preparation and professional coffee barista skills by a few professionally trained coaches.
"But the journey was not all smooth sailing," said Teh, as he showed me around the group's second outlet in Menara Gamuda at the PJ Trade Centre which opened in June.
Teh has 12 years' experience in restaurant and fast-food management and operations, and is founder and chief executive officer of both DiB Coffees of Hawaii and Centre for Customer Care Malaysia.
In his early career, Teh worked with the deaf at the DEAF Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Imbi project in 1985, and with DiB Coffees Hawaii, he hopes to create a business model where the deaf can be employed gainfully and also own equity in the business.
With the new outlet, this Made-in-Malaysia brand is the first cafe chain in the country to be run by the deaf and hearing-impaired.
Reflecting on the effort it took to set up the first outlet, Teh said the deaf or hearing-impaired had to learn some tough lessons along the way about professionalism and working in the service industry.
"In business, people want performance and results. Special needs people don't get special treatment. They had to step outside their comfort zone and learn to be comfortable communicating with hearing customers, plus deal with the criticisms and feedback that they received. Initially, they also did not realise the importance of following standard procedure and were adjusting the food and drink recipes on a whim."
There was also the necessity of staffing and reaching the right people to sign up for jobs at DiB Coffees Hawaii.
"Making contact with the deaf or hearing-impaired was difficult because they are a closed community. Second, they can be selective about jobs and needed some convincing to show up for our recruitment sessions."
Then while surfing the Internet for ideas on how to reach his target audience, Teh chanced upon DeafBoleh!Malaysia, a blog by Selina Ooi, a digital marketing and social media specialist.
Ooi, who is deaf and hearing-impaired herself, writes a blog, which not only provides information about issues relevant to the deaf and hearing-impaired community like technology resources, reviews of deaf events and movies, but also aims to create awareness of the deaf community in Malaysia and be a bridge between the deaf and the hearing.
She helped Teh to connect with the deaf and the hearing-impaired and announce employment opportunities with the cafe, and until today, continues to help Teh with advice on deaf and hearing-impaired issues.
For the new DiB outlet in Menara Gamuda, the Gamuda group donated a shoplot at their office tower for DiB to use for two years, rent-free and also took care of the renovation of the premises.
Teh hopes to persuade more corporate organisations to follow Gamuda's example and adopt DiB projects under their corporate social responsibility programme.
"Our business vision is not only to become a successful and profitable chain here, but internationally as well. The ultimate aim is to groom and coach the hearing-impaired to become business entrepreneurs, who will have the opportunity to own and operate his or her own DiB Coffees of Hawaii outlet, throughout Malaysia and possibly overseas," said Teh, who also has 30 years' experience in operations, management and consultancy.
He added that so far, DiB has received invitations to set up outlets in Krabi, Bali and Sydney.