If you’re familiar with the western suburbs of Sydney, you’ve probably heard of Rashays. The family-friendly casual eatery franchise, which first opened in Liverpool, has rivalled the likes of Hogs Breath Cafe and Sizzler since 1998 – it has more than 20 locations across New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory and an extensive menu inspired by Italian, American and classic Australian fare.
While the Rashays franchises are usually known for their meat and seafood dishes, the Punchbowl outlet has been garnering community attention for something else entirely: it will be the first restaurant in Sydney to make it mandatory for all staff to learn basic Auslan - Australian sign language.
According to Punchbowl Rashays franchisee Bashar Krayem, the new initiative is both an attempt to foster inclusivity amongst staff and customers, and a natural extension of the restaurant’s community-minded philosophy.
It all started, he tells SBS, with a couple of regulars.
“We had two deaf customers who had been coming in regularly for about a year,” he says. “Unfortunately, it was always difficult to communicate with them. The staff would always try, but we felt as though they were quite uncomfortable. We were all trying to figure out ways to make the restaurant a more comfortable and inclusive environment for them.”
Their search leads them to Sydney Deaf Muslim, a Facebook group seeking to improve accessibility, communication and services for its demographic. The group will put together an education pack for Rashays staff, laying out how to welcome deaf customers, how to ask them if they’re allergic to anything or how to communicate information about dishes – all in sign language. “It was basically telling us how to do what any good restaurant is meant to do, but for deaf or hard-of-hearing people,” Krayem says.
From there, the idea was to implement a staff training model based on other restaurants that were doing something similar. The catch? There weren’t any restaurants doing anything similar.
“There are deaf restaurants where deaf people are employed, but we’re the first restaurant to employ hearing staff but make it mandatory for them to learn basic Auslan,” Krayem says. “We’re the first of our kind.”
The program is still a work in progress, but the current plan involves bringing on deaf employees and an interpreter to train Rashays staff in Auslan. The early training sessions will be recorded, so that future employees will have access to resources for their own training.
It’s an initiative the 35 current staff members at Rashays have embraced with gusto.
“There are deaf restaurants where deaf people are employed, but we’re the first restaurant to employ hearing staff but make it mandatory for them to learn sign language. We’re the first of our kind.”
“They are so excited,” Krayem says. “When we told them what we were going to do, they said they didn’t want to stop at just the basics. Many of them have taken it upon themselves to learn more and have enrolled in sign language courses outside of the restaurant. We’ve also had other restaurants contact us saying they want to get on board. It’s definitely started a chain reaction.”
Krayem sees Rashays' recent foray into compulsory sign language training as a positive step for a community that isn’t always get painted in a rosy light. The video posted on the Rashays Punchbowl Facebook page announcing the new initiative has been viewed more than 50,000 times, and the story has been picked up by multiple news outlets.
Krayem hopes the media attention is the beginning of a new phase in Sydney’s hospitality scene – one where inclusivity comes first, and negative stereotypes are left at the door.
“Inclusivity is very important to me and the team at Rashays,” he explains. “We come from Punchbowl – it’s a community that has seen a lot of divide in the past because the media often takes a negative focus on life out here. But there’s a different side to Punchbowl: it’s a side that’s inclusive of everybody, in terms of culture, religion, ability level, everything. We have customers from all walks of life, and they will always be welcome. This is the real Punchbowl.”
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The Broadway Plaza, Shop 28, 1-9 Broadway, Punchbowl, 13000 13000