Photo of deaf diners at Union Market by Darrow Montgomery

&pizza founder Michael Lastoria says his rapidly expanding company wouldn’t be what it is today without the District’s deaf community. He’s not alone. Richard Brandenburg, the Director of Culinary Strategy for Edens, which operates Union Market, says deaf diners have been a phenomenal part of the market’s success. What these two have in common is that they share a zipcode with Gallaudet University—the nation’s preeminent school for the deaf and hard of hearing. Brandenburg even playfully characterizes Union Market as Gallaudet’s cafeteria, a luxury that can only be compared to Google’s New York crew getting to dine across the street at Chelsea Market.

But despite &pizza’s address at 1118 H St. NE, Lastoria admits he initially didn’t consider the restaurant’s proximity to Gallaudet. “While we did a fair amount of research in the neighborhood, it was somewhat overlooked,” he says. That is, until the first eight customers arrived—all of them Gallaudet students, including local model and deaf activist Nyle DiMarco of Dancing with the Stars and America’s Next Top Model fame.

“I realized they were signing to each other and that we could forge a strong bond—not because they were our first guests, but because they were pleased and thankful that we opened,” Lastoria says. The group gave &pizza a Gallaudet banner to hang, signaling deaf diners should feel at home. Lastoria’s goal was to build a pizza shop reflective of the community, so he quickly worked to make the ordering seamless by focusing on visual communication and basic sign language.

While deaf diners can expect accommodating service at Union Market and H Street NE restaurants, other parts of the city may not be as prepared. At a time when D.C.’s dining scene is basking in national accolades from Bon Appetit and beyond, deaf diners shouldn’t feel limited to one quadrant. True, deaf diners face a number of unique challenges, but there are simple ways restaurants can adapt, and the reward is often repeat customers. 

The biggest challenge is light—without it, people who rely on sign language can’t communicate. National Association of the Deaf CEO Howard A. Rosenblum says restaurants should seat deaf and hard of hearing diners in well-lit areas, or better yet, give deaf patrons control over where they roost. “Evening dining is a challenge when restaurants like to dim the lights,” he says. “Which is understandable but it isn’t so deaf friendly.” 

Keith Doane, who is getting his Masters in Public Administration at Gallaudet, agrees. “When they dim the lights for dinner, it’s like I was already struggling with light, now it’s worse,” he says through an interpreter. He compares the situation to scoring a quiet table that turns too noisy as the restaurant fills up. For a quick fix, offer deaf patrons extra candles or small LED lights. They enable deaf couples to be in control and still cozy up and converse during date night in a dark restaurant.

Then there’s ordering. Servers should understand that all deaf diners are different. “Someone who can speak, but uses sign language to understand is very frequent—hearing and speaking don’t always have to do with each other,” explains Jennifer Heiser, the development specialist at Deaf-REACH. Hard of hearing herself, she consults restaurants on how to be deaf friendly. 

Geo Kartheiser is getting his doctorate in Educational Neuroscience at Gallaudet. His boyfriend, Layton Seeber, is a graduate student there and helps coach the basketball team. The mega-foodies dine out three times a week. “Sometimes Layton uses his voice to place orders, but that doesn’t mean I want to,” Kartheiser says. “I would like restaurants to know that just because one deaf person at the table uses their voice, it doesn’t mean the rest of the table wants to.”

Restaurant staff should discuss orders with each diner, according to Rosenblum. “Too often restaurant staff may ask a person at the table who might be able to hear or speak to handle all of the food orders. While this may be easier for restaurant staff, this is offensive to deaf and hard-of-hearing diners,” he says.

Another problem is that deaf diners often miss out on deals. “When a group of us deaf people get together and it’s a lot of pointing, there’s no motivation for the server or bartender to relay happy hour specials,” says Jason Almendarez, a Gallaudet graduate who bartends at H Street Country Club. “They’re like fine, just point and choose [from the regular menu].”

Four things can help when it comes to ordering and interacting with deaf diners, in addition to the basics like making eye contact: gesturing, paper and pens, a tablet such as an iPad, and employees who sign.

Doane says willingness to gesture goes a long way. He beams when describing a post–camping trip meal from earlier this month, even though the destination was Denny’s. “The waitress was amazing at communicating with us visually because she was able to gesture, ‘do you want coffee?’” he says, explaining servers too often panic and dash to get a pen even though the request is straightforward. “Yes, I appreciate writing it down, but can’t we try to understand a simple sign for water or coffee?”

That being said, paper and pens can be helpful when gesturing falls short. “You’ve probably played charades with your friends, and you had that one friend who was completely awful at the game. You never know, it’s hit or miss,” Almendarez says.

Seeber agrees and says ideally, a server should arrive at the table with a pad of paper already containing a greeting. Seeber saves the notes from their dinners for sentimental value, going over them occasionally to remember a meal. “I understand that writing takes a bit longer than speaking, but the responsibility of the restaurant is to make sure their patrons have a stellar dining experience,” he says. 

Seeber has some pet peeves, though. Sometimes servers will drop off the pen and paper and walk away. “If a hearing patron is speaking to you, will you walk away as well? I feel the same respect applies,” he says. “Also, don’t try to keep speaking after we ask for a pen and paper. It only falls on deaf ears—literally.”

If a pen and paper are too cumbersome, a tablet pre-loaded with the menu, daily specials, descriptions of wines, and more can work. “Throughout the country, there are restaurants that now have tablets available for diners, and the tablets make it possible for everyone, including those who are deaf, to order without communication barriers,” Rosenblum explains. 

Of course, the best-case scenario is having staff members who know at least a little American Sign Language (ASL). “It’s as easy as learning your ABCs—as slow as it may be—it still breaks down the barrier,” Almendarez says. No time for lessons? Heiser says the employees at Union Market’s Peregrine Espresso used The ASL App. DiMarco is one of the sign instructors on the interface.

The person who knows ASL might even be in the kitchen. David Uzzell, a Gallaudet graduate, has been a cook at Marcel’s since December 2014. He’ll pop out to the bar or dining room to sign if there are deaf patrons dining or drinking. Chef de Cuisine Paul Stearman recruited Uzzell from where he was working in Union Market. “He was sitting there having a beer and he texted me on his phone and said he was cooking,” the chef says. “I asked him what he liked to cook and he said he was stuck washing dishes and making shitty money, so I said come work for me.”

Uzzell reads lips to get by, but Stearman has learned basic signs. He would encourage other chefs to hire deaf employees. “It’s about how you work—a lot of people don’t make it in my kitchen,” Stearman says. “If you have the patience, it’s a little bit of a challenge, but everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, everyone’s a challenge.” 

Beyond hiring employees who know ASL and discussing with non-signing staff tools like gesturing, writing on paper, or programming a tablet, restaurants should at least focus on being attentive. “Patience and flexibility are the two biggest things outside any of those practical things,” says Heiser. “If you can’t be patient and flexible, you shouldn’t be in the restaurant industry.”

It’s no surprise that restaurants widely praised for good service are also favorites among deaf diners. Kartheiser and Seeber name Little Serow and Rose’s Luxury as favorites outside of the Gallaudet neighborhood. “The people who work there ooze positive vibes, and they do a great job of making us feel inclusive in their dining environment,” Seeber says. But perhaps the couple’s best experience was an anniversary dinner at the Inn at Little Washington—the Virginia restaurant surprised them with an interpreter.

Positive or negative, websites like deaffriendly.com allow deaf diners to review restaurants based on inclusiveness. For example, user “Fmhaey” submitted a review about Po Boy Jim. An excerpt reads: “What particularly got our attention was our great waitress, Rachel. She was friendly and used sign language with us the whole time. She told us that she is a CODA [Child of Deaf Adults], a bonus! She was friendly throughout our dining experience. We would go back just because of her.”

Did you hear that, restaurants? CP

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.