THE oven's warm glow and aroma of fresh bread signal the morning rush at Bach's Bakery in the central Chinese city of Changsha, but although the baking staff chatter excitedly, you could hear a pin drop.
Bach's employs mainly hearing-impaired staff, whose banter over trays of pumpkin bread, Danish sausage rolls and apple turnovers is done entirely in sign language.
The operation, owned and operated by German national Uwe Brutzer, provides work opportunities that are often hard to come by for his employees.
Despite growing awareness of disabled needs, life remains a challenge for China's hearing impaired, officially estimated at between 20 and 30 million.
It is difficult to "make good money and get an education", said Wan Ting, a 28-year-old employed by Bach's since 2017 after a previous unsuccessful stint in advertising design.
"It's hard (to find work) in other places. You need to know someone to be able to find good work. If not, you have few options," added Wan, hearing-impaired since birth and speaking via sign language translated by Mr Brutzer.
With their communication challenges, the hearing-impaired are often steered into work requiring skilful use of the hands, said the 50-year-old Mr Brutzer, making the bakery a nice fit.
Mr Brutzer and his wife Dorothee first came to Changsha back in 2002 with a German charity to help hearing-impaired children.
He took over the bakery in 2011 and has since trained around 20 bakers. Most go on to work in other bakeries, restaurants or hotels.
But other aspects of running a business - hiring, working with suppliers, talking to customers - pose major challenges to opening their own bake shops.
"Two of our very experienced bakers (have tried), but they both closed their shops later again. It was too much hassle for them," he said.
The bright and compact bakery has had a devoted local clientele for years in the city - known more for its peppery Hunan cuisine - despite being hidden in a non-descript residential side alley.
Bakery margins are thin, however, and Bach's has struggled, said Mr Brutzer. But things are looking up, despite China's traumatic coronavirus lockdowns earlier this year.
Moving to no-touch take-out service during the epidemic kept volumes humming, and Bach's went viral this summer thanks to a spate of feel-good Chinese media coverage.
Today, a loud creak from the front door announces a new customer every few minutes and business is up five-fold from last year, said Mr Brutzer. The challenge is meeting demand.
"But that will slow down, I hope, to a good level where we can pay better salaries and people will be happier," he said. AFP