PETALING JAYA, Sept 22 — Kok Jiann Cheng didn’t know much about making coffee and being a barista five years ago.
Fast forward to today and the 28-year-old is a skilled barista who can brew a mean cup of joe with beautiful swirls of latte art.
He’s just one of many deaf individuals whose lives have been transformed at Deaf In Business (DIB), a restaurant serving local and Western delights while providing unbiased employment and training to people with disabilities.
Kok told Malay Mail that he’s picked up many new skills since he first joined DIB eight years ago.
“I started training to become a barista and although I enjoyed the process, I felt like all of my drinks looked very ugly.
“I practised every day for two weeks until I managed to perfect my latte art.
“Now when I go to other cafes, I can look at their latte art and feel confident knowing that I can do the same, and maybe even better,” he said with a laugh.
Kok was motivated to find a job because he wanted to be financially independent and was keen on the idea of working with a team of deaf individuals like him.
He used to earn his keep as a kitchen assistant at his uncle’s restaurant where being the only deaf person resulted in many communication hurdles.
“I’m happy to work at DIB because this way, I have my own income and I don’t have to be a burden on my parents.
“It feels normal to be around other deaf people like me. The environment is positive and I enjoy working with people who understand what I go through.”
With his cheery disposition, Kok acts as DIB’s “mascot” and is more than happy to teach simple sign language to customers, especially when it comes to coffee-related words such as “latte” and “Americano.”
DIB was started by entrepreneur Allen Teh a decade ago as a social enterprise project which then grew into a cafe in 2011.
Teh said his original intention was to highlight Hawaiian coffee beans to Malaysians and that the idea to employ deaf people followed naturally.
His vision for DIB is to become the largest employer of deaf people in the Asia Pacific region and show off the untapped potential of the deaf community to businesses and corporations.
“We wanted to be the first cafe in Malaysia to sell Hawaiian coffee. In the early 2010s, gourmet coffee was all the rage. Everyone wanted to be a barista.
“When I thought about the staff I wanted to hire, that’s when deaf people came to my mind.
“I thought that if I can hire all deaf employees for the business, I can make a statement and get something special out of this project,” Teh told Malay Mail.
Teh believes it takes blood, sweat, and tears to make a social enterprise like DIB sustainable in the long-run and the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the reality of that statement even closer to home.
Like many other food and beverage outlets, DIB was hit hard by restrictions imposed under the movement control order (MCO) but Teh is set on weathering the storm for the sake of his team.
He did not introduce a pay cut for any of the eight employees working in DIB because he knew this period would be tough on them as well.
“It’s difficult but I’m always reminded that they are like family to me and I cannot abandon them so easily.
“When hard times come, we cannot leave them in the dust. That’s my philosophy.”
With fewer walk-in diners, DIB is working hard on promoting itself via food delivery and is a merchant-partner on GrabFood.
They offer a slew of mouthwatering items such as burgers, pastas, and sandwiches as well as a variety of Malaysian dishes and gourmet coffee.
Teh is keeping his fingers crossed that DIB will be able to bounce back from the hardships of the MCO by increasing their visibility on online platforms and, slowly but surely, returning to catering and hosting events.
His dedication to the business has given a space for employees like Kok to grow into well-rounded individuals who are not only passionate about their jobs but are financially independent as well.
The feeling of being able to provide for himself has been a source of immeasurable pride for Kok, and it’s a feeling that Teh hopes to instil in all of his deaf employees.
“I can depend on myself now and it’s a great feeling. I felt very proud when I managed to save enough to buy my own smartphone and PlayStation 4.
“Now, my dream is to save enough to buy my own car,” said Kok.
DIB is located on the first floor of Menara Gamuda, PJ Trade Centre, No 8 Jalan PJU 8/8A, Bandar Damansara Perdana, 47820 Petaling Jaya and is open on weekdays from 7.30am to 6pm.
For more information, check out DIB’s Facebook page.