Chen Zizhong (L), a hearing-impaired barista, communicates with a colleague in sign language about coffee making at the Starbucks Beijing Xitieying Wanda signing store in Beijing, capital of China, Dec. 3, 2020. (Xinhua/Li Xin)

BEIJING (Xinhua) — Chen Zizhong, 27, clad in a brand-new black apron, won the coveted title of “coffee master” among his colleagues in Beijing’s one and only Starbucks signing store.

The hearing-impaired barista works with a mix of hearing and hearing-impaired staff. The staff refer to each other as “partners,” which reflects the close bond that helps them during peak rush hours.

Starbucks has a total of six signing stores worldwide, which are made up equally of hearing and hearing-impaired staff. Among them, two are based in the Chinese mainland. The Starbucks Beijing Xitieying Wanda signing store, where Chen landed his job, opened in September 2020 and is the first of its kind in Beijing.

Tackle Problems Head-On

Cabinets groaning with mugs and canvas sacks display souvenirs printed with images of hand signs and gestures, while a low cakes and pastries display case makes way for communication between baristas and customers in sign language. Display screens with order details always face the customers, and portable tablet computers with built-in voice assistance provide the hearing-impaired baristas with ease in face-to-face communication.

Flanking the counter, the corner for activities is decked out with soundproof foam to safeguard a relatively quiet environment for the hearing-impaired baristas.


Chen Zizhong, a hearing-impaired barista,makes coffee at the Starbucks Beijing Xitieying Wanda signing store in Beijing, capital of China, Dec. 3, 2020. (Xinhua/Li Xin)

However, the delicate designs of the cafe are quite hard to spot by a busy passerby. “When customers are wearing their masks and ask me for some napkins, misunderstandings can easily take place,” Chen said. Those scenarios are where his hearing partners can step in and help.

Chen Fangqi, the cafe manager, has worked with Starbucks since 2009. “This is the quietest Starbucks I have ever encountered,” she said, adding that she used to work in a cafe inside the Beijing South Railway Station, among the busiest branches in Beijing.

The coffee shop in the railway station has a high volume of customers. The only hearing-impaired employee spends his shift preparing drinks in order to avoid possible issues communicating with customers.

“Our interpretation of equality is not about lowering our standards to favor the minorities, but offering equal job opportunities and upward mobility for impaired citizens,” said the manager.

No compromise in standards means an uphill struggle for the disabled. Copying the same drink recipe dozens of times from their dog-eared notebooks patched up with tape is commonplace for hearing-impaired baristas as it is the most efficient way for them to learn.

It will not be easy for Chen Zizhong to qualify as a coffee master.

Basic knowledge of various coffee beans sold in the store and day-to-day practices to make pour-over coffee are only snags, but hosting coffee lectures with customers face to face can be a daunting task.

Chen used to spend his days in a 9-to-5 job hunched over a desk, but feeling the absence of human interaction, he applied for a new career with Starbucks.

“After years working with screens, I’d like to move onto something that brings me face-to-face interaction to help improve my speaking ability,” he said. “Though it can be hard for me, I want equality for everyone.”

Refuse To Go Silent

At first, the hearing-impaired baristas tend to turn to those without impairment for a quick-fix when they run into troubles. Now, they are encouraged to use writing pads as a supplementary communication tool with customers.

After eight hours of work, Chen Zizhong often goes to hospitals to help those with hearing impairments visit doctors as a translation volunteer.

“The disabled and other partners are not two pieces of a puzzle. The merging of their worlds needs patience and communication,” said Chen Fangqi, noting that the hearing-impaired are also raring to engage in the world and to be of service to society.

Customers are seen at the Starbucks Beijing Xitieying Wanda signing store in Beijing, capital of China, Dec. 3, 2020. (Xinhua/Li Xin)

With growing customer traffic and the clatter of coffee machines, each hearing-impaired staff member has been given an electronic watch connected to the ovens that vibrates and flashes to alert busy baristas when the food being heated is done. Such technology solutions are catching up with the quotidian needs of the disabled. Functions including timing and calling for help are expected to be added in the near future.

Every Sunday afternoon, the signing store also holds a class to teach sign language to customers. Chen Fangqi also learned some in daily conversation with her hearing-impaired colleagues.

Currently, more than 120 baristas with hearing impairments are working in Starbucks nationwide, and the number is expected to grow as the company plans to open more specialized cafes like these in China’s major cities such as Hangzhou and Shanghai.

In the store, a huge painting designed by a hearing-impaired artist hangs on the wall. Inside one of the wool balls in the painting, which resemble coffee beans, hides one of Chen Zizhong’s wildest dreams — “I hope to become a Starbucks store manager someday.”