H Street NE Bars and Restaurants Reach Out to Their Deaf Neighbors
“Are you ready to start?” the trivia announcer shouts into the microphone at H Street NE restaurant Vendetta.
The place is so quiet that the bartenders don’t need to speak above a whisper, and I can hear a group across the room clink its beer glasses. Yet the place is packed for a Monday night. Not a seat remains at the second-floor bar, and even the bocce courts have been covered by tables and chairs to make more room for the 80 or more attendees. Unlike every other trivia night in town, no one is shouting over each other. Instead, groups of friends are conversing with their hands at Vendetta’s first-ever American Sign Language trivia night. As far as its organizers are aware, it’s also the first bar trivia night of its kind in the District.
The event isn’t so different from trivia at Stoney’s or Wonderland Ballroom—except every question is asked both verbally and through American Sign Language.
“What city’s drivers owe over $460 million in parking fines every year?” (New York.)
“What part of the body is most commonly bitten by insects?” (The foot.)
And then the round of trivia devoted solely to deaf culture: “Who is the first deaf Major League Baseball player?” (William Ellsworth Hoy, a.k.a. Dummy Hoy.)
Almost everyone around me is signing, but a couple groups who don’t know sign language at all have shown up, too. The hearing guy next to me tells me he came because he was intrigued by the promise of heavy bass music. And after the first three rounds of questions, he gets it, as Beyoncé’s “Countdown” booms and a performer takes the stage, simultaneously signing and dancing. At the end of her “karaoke” performance, everyone raises their hands and flutters them in the air—the sign for applause.
The monthly trivia night is just one example of the growing effort of H Street NE bars and restaurants to cater to the deaf and hard of hearing community, many of whom are students or staff at nearby Gallaudet University. Vendetta co-owner Jimmy Silk says five years ago, when he was general manager at H Street Country Club, the restaurant didn’t have any employees who could sign, which became an issue on Thursday nights when many college kids go out. “We would get a pop of 40 to 50 Gallaudet students, and we couldn’t communicate with them,” he says. “We would literally stock the bar with pads of paper and pens.” Today, a third of the staff at Vendetta and seven employees at H Street Country Club (from the same owners) can sign fluently. Other establishments on H Street, and also Union Market vendors, also tend to hire at least one person who can sign. With 3,000 students, faculty, and staff at Gallaudet, restaurateurs are realizing they can’t ignore the needs of the deaf population.
Aaron Potts, a deaf bartender at Vendetta and H Street Country Club, says other deaf people are often surprised to realize the staff can sign. “They’ll ask for a paper and pen,” he says. He’ll sign back, “Yeah, sure, I’ll get you a paper and pen.” “They’d be confused: ‘Wait, you know sign language?’” says Potts, who’s also a part-time coach for track and field and cross country at Gallaudet. “Yes, I do.”
Jai Almendarez, a partially deaf junior at Gallaudet who also bartends at Vendetta and H Street Country Club, chimes in: “They don’t think it’s a common thing that you see all the time.”
Potts got cochlear implants in 2006 but still relies primarily on lip-reading. While his speech can be difficult to understand, he can still communicate verbally without an interpreter. Meanwhile, Almendarez can’t hear high frequencies—like telephones, fire alarms, children’s voices, and more times than not, women’s voices. Both bartenders say it took some initial adjustment to get used to the restaurant world, where people are often yelling and trying to get their attention from a million different directions. Almendarez started as a food runner at H Street Country Club, where the kitchen used a bell to let runners know that dishes were ready. “I would just stand there, and it was almost every single day that the chef would yell at me,” Almendarez says. “I just let him know you can’t keep on using that when I’m working here. It’s just not going to work…I would just pay more attention really, just always on the ball, always ready.”
Potts started as a food runner and then a bar back at H Street Country Club. “I didn’t really notice the crowd because I was focused on stocking the bar,” he says. But when he graduated to bartender, “all of a sudden I look up, and wow, I don’t know if I can handle all this.” But ultimately, he and Almendarez think they have some advantages. “The deaf culture tends to be much more visual,” Almendarez says, meaning they tend to be very aware of what’s going on in their peripheral vision. And people in bars often use hand gestures to get a bartender’s attention, anyway.
Restaurateurs on H Street NE also now see sign language skills as a major plus when they’re hiring. “That’s definitely a skill that will bring a candidate to the top of the list,” says H Street Country Club general manager Ricardo Vergara. When the restaurant first opened, he says, he didn’t quite realize how underserved the Gallaudet students had been when it came to nightlife, until he saw them come out in droves. That required some quick adjustments on the part of the restaurant, including turning up the lights for groups of signing people to see each other better, stocking the bar with pads and pens, and switching the color of the paper napkins from black to white so people could more easily scribble on them.
The Queen Vic has a slightly more high-tech solution: Owner Ryan Gordon keeps electronic LCD writing tablets on hand that deaf patrons can use to communicate with staff. And at H &pizza, six employees can sign fluently, and the restaurant conducts ongoing training for all staff to learn at least the basics. Co-owner Steve Salis says he’s working with Gallaudet students to create an employee booklet that will help his staff sign everything from greetings to pizza toppings. Salis estimates that nearly a quarter of the pizza shop’s customers come from Gallaudet.
The university has also tried to help foster a relationship between restaurants and the school’s staff and students. “When H Street really just started up, many people of the Gallaudet community here weren’t even aware of all the positive changes that were happening on H Street, including the students,” says Assistant VP for Administration Fred Weiner, who heads up community outreach efforts, through an interpreter. About four years ago, the university invited nearby restaurants to campus to provide free samples of their food. Gallaudet also offered a series of ASL classes for people in the hospitality industry to teach them basic signs as well as deaf etiquette. Weiner says that’s grown into a “mini cottage industry” of deaf individuals who provide ASL classes to restaurants and other businesses. “It’s really become more organic, and that’s the way it should be,” Weiner says.
Gallaudet is also helping to get its students involved in the food industry. Earlier this week, Union Kitchen co-owner Jonas Singer spoke to a group of deaf food entrepreneurs. Gallaudet has also been in talks with Union Kitchen to offer classes on campus, possibly as soon as this summer, that would cover everything from food preparation to setting up a business. “That’s probably one of the purest forms of meritocracy: Either the food is good or it’s not,” Weiner says. “That’s one of the few industries where deaf people can actually compete.”
The university has also worked closely with Union Market developer Edens since it is, after all, right next door. “Between NoMa and Gallaudet, that’s most of our lunch crowd,” says Edens Market director of culinary strategy Richie Brandenburg. Even before the market opened, Brandenburg says Edens took the deaf population into account when designing the open layout. He explains that if someone yells “fire,” or tries to communicate anything from across the hall, deaf patrons might not know what’s going on unless they can see it.
Union Market held a couple sign language classes for its employees and even hosted a job fair at Gallaudet when it first opened. Now, almost every vendor has at least one deaf person working there.
“What was interesting at that time,” Weiner says, “I was thinking more along the lines of how do people who don’t know sign serve deaf customers. But what I see happening there now is the other way around, where you have deaf people who are serving hearing customers.”
That’s what’s happening at Vendetta, too. Trivia nights are ubiquitous across the city’s bars, but they’re not always the most inclusive place for the deaf or hard of hearing. “You see that it’s happening, but really you don’t care,” says Almendarez. “No one is getting you to be involved. Because typically people who are hearing look at a deaf person and think, ‘Oh, if I’m using a microphone, OK, I won’t even bother that person. I won’t even ask if they want to play.’ There’s already that automatic separation.”
Vendetta’s trivia night not only appealed to the deaf community, but it was an event organized by deaf bar staffers that was meant to appeal to everyone.
“The idea is we want to be able to break down all the barriers,” Almendarez says. “We are neighbors, and we’re in the same area. We drink together. We argue together. We see the world together. Why not play games together?”
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo of Jai Almendarez and Aaron Potts by Darrow Montgomery