Lalani is pleasant and courteous taking a pizza order from a young couple. Tech-savvy, she effortlessly operates the ‘tab’ in her hand and confirms the order with a smile. Thushan is oblivious to the world around him baking a tantalizing pizza in the ‘production department’ of the Siripa Lane (Thimbirigasyaya) outlet of popular fast food [...]


What makes this Pizza Hut special?


We can do it: ‘Specially abled’ staff at the Thimbirigasyaya outlet. Pix by Amila Gamage

Lalani is pleasant and courteous taking a pizza order from a young couple. Tech-savvy, she effortlessly operates the ‘tab’ in her hand and confirms the order with a smile. Thushan is oblivious to the world around him baking a tantalizing pizza in the ‘production department’ of the Siripa Lane (Thimbirigasyaya) outlet of popular fast food chain Pizza Hut. Nishan, Nirmani, Pradesh, Voshan and Yasintha follow suit.

Eleven hearing-impaired youngsters are happily and productively employed, part of a ground-breaking move by Pizza Hut Sri Lanka to emerge as the first among its global network to have an outlet staffed by the differently-abled. “For us, these youngsters are ‘specially-abled’,” says Bryan Gunarathne, Executive Trainer of Gamma Pizzakraft Lanka (Pvt) Ltd, the franchise holder for Pizza Hut in Sri Lanka. The move, as Bryan tells us was a challenging one from a social, psychological and a HR (human resource) perspective, striking a fine balance between assuring customer satisfaction and creating equal working opportunities. “To assist these recruits, there are three ‘non-disability’ colleagues along with the delivery personnel who are also those with ‘non-disability’ as there are practical difficulties the hearing-impaired will experience in certain job portfolios,” explains Bryan.

Bryan Gunarathne

The initiative which is the fruit of four years of research and comparative studies across the world by Gamma Pizzakraft Lanka (Pvt) Ltd, is done with the collaboration of the School for the Deaf in Ratmalana. The new recruits who are products of the Ratmalana School have completed their formal education and received special training in bakery production as part of their vocational training. Having trained for six months at Pizza Hut, they were offered permanent job postings at several Pizza Hut outlets for exposure prior to starting work here.

The whole exercise has been challenging and stimulating, says Bryan who had to ‘get into the shoes’ of these differently-abled youth along with his other colleagues. “Apart from learning sign language from a Ratmalana School trainer, we also developed a special ‘Pizza Hut’ sign language jargon to enable better communication.” The exercise, has also empowered the families of these youth who had felt ostracized by society at times, Bryan notes. “The employment opportunities have made the parents confident that their children, despite certain odds, are given a level-playing field. Besides, these gifted youth had proven that although they are deprived of certain faculties, they are endowed with other gifts such as high concentration power and attention to detail which are effective in business,” adds Bryan.

Manoj Fernando

Manager of the Thimbirigasyaya outlet, Manoj Fernando says this has been a rewarding experience. “The best part is, these youngsters are enabled a career path by Pizza Hut. It is a great place to climb up the ladder on the strength of one’s performance,” says Manoj who has set the example himself. Having started his career as crew member, Manoj takes pride in climbing up the ladder as a supervisor and now being a manager.

The customer response to the ambitious move has been very positive, says Manoj. “Several customers from Colombo suburbs having received the news from social media and friends came to get first-hand experience which speaks for the progressive mind-shift the country is moving towards.”

“I’m a great fan of spicy pizza and whenever I’m in Sri Lanka I drop in and this time it’s a wonderful surprise,” says Debra, a HR professional from Seychelles who applauds the management for their progressive thinking. “Nobody should be left behind in the modern world of work and Sri Lanka has spoken for the fact,” she adds.

Kaushal Mendis

Sachinda Dulanjana a youth worker who was enjoying a meal with a friend applauds the endeavour as championing diversity as an asset rather than as a barrier. “It is time we changed our mindset that the differently-abled people may not need our sympathy anymore, but empathy. These young people with hearing impairments who work at the Pizza Hut, Thimbirigasyaya outlet are the best example for that.”

With a beaming ‘thumbs up’ Lalani and Thushan signal they are quite delighted to be part of the Pizza Hut team. With the assistance of their Manager, Manoj, both endorse the ambitious move by the organization, urging others also to take a cue.

Kaushal Mendis, Director- HR and Administration at Gamma Pizzakraft Lanka (Pvt) Ltd reflects that what the customer is assured of is not just fast food, but a holistic experience. “Our business is all about quick service. Anyone who walks into this outlet will experience the same speed and same quality of service sealed with the same smile debunking all misconceptions about the differently-abled.” Pizza Hut aspires to make their outlets ‘diverse’ by replicating their latest experience. “If we can inspire fellow Sri Lankans with our move and one day see all these recruits donning the Manager’s tie, that is our success story,” says Kaushal with a smile.

Reminding all that the 30-year civil war has left many young people disabled, Kaushal also urges other organizations to harness their talents. “We often complain of the shortage of skilled labour in this country forgetting there is a community whose talent has not been utilized.”

Hard at work, Thushan preparing a pizza

Lauding his Operations Team for the unstinted support extended in making the whole project a success, Kaushal also applauds the Disability Network of the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC) for their guidance. “We partnered with the Network last year and the insights we received helped strengthen our resolve. With their assistance, we hope to make out outlets Braille-friendly for the benefit of the visually-impaired by making Braille menus available.”

It is heartening to see member companies who walk the talk by promoting inclusivity,  Director General, EFC, Kanishka Weerasinghe said, adding that his organization considers it a privilege to be associated with this ‘first in the world’ event. Manager, Specialised Training and Disability Centre of the EFC, Manique Gunaratne, an internationally recognised activist for persons with disabilities sees the project as an eye-opener for all employers in the country. “It gives persons with disabilities an opportunity to earn a living with dignity equally as other counterparts in the organization. Above all, it will help eliminate social stigma towards people with disabilities and foster a mind shift from exclusion to inclusion. I applaud Pizza Hut for helping the world learn a new language,” she said.

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