Providing excellent service to customers with a variety of disabilities is becoming an essential component of server training.
Now that restaurant operators have complied with the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, making their public accommodations accessible to everyone, they are becoming more aware of extra ways to excel in serving all customers. Guests who have handicaps ranging from difficulties reading small print, often a normal part of aging, to those with serious mobility issues should be able to enjoy dining out as much as those with perfect vision and complete range of motion.
Jim Sullivan, CEO of Sullivision, a restaurant leadership and customer service training and consulting firm and author of Fundamentals: 9 Ways to Be Brilliant at the New Basics of Business, advises operators to invite local agencies well-versed in disability and elderly care to visit their restaurants to help educate their service team. “Tape their presentation and add it to your training archives,” he suggests.
Simple solutions exist for the increasingly common problem of visual impairment as the population ages. Sullivan recommends printing menus in easy-to-read fonts and point sizes, and keeping small flashlights and reading glasses at the host stand.
Mark Grosz, chef-owner of Oceanique, a 24-year-old French-American seafood restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, goes several steps further for his visually impaired guests. A seasonal Braille menu is being printed to serve those guests who are blind or nearly blind, and ceiling pin lights are installed over each table for sighted individuals who have some difficulty reading menus.
Servers will verbally augment the Braille menus with additional details of requested dishes, which are more general descriptions of center-of-the-plate proteins, Grosz says, noting that the menu changes often. He also provides flashlights and reading glasses.
Additionally, Grosz has replaced older booths and chairs with more comfortable seating and opened up the space to make it easier for the wheelchair-bound to navigate.
In Sun City, Arizona, Judy Guarino partnered four years ago with three other women to open WOW Café, which is especially focused on serving the more than 54,000 residents of nearby retirement communities. “We take real good care of our customers, and we have many who come in every night for dinner,” she says.
“People come in with walkers and oxygen. We walk them to their cars if needed, and if they’re sick and can’t come in to the restaurant, we bring food to their homes,” Guarino says, even though delivery is not one of WOW’s normal services. Formerly a design engineer and professional musician, Guarino says opening and operating the café is one of the most rewarding things she has ever done.
Building customer loyalty is just one benefit of treating disabled customers well. Pam Parseghian, a New Jersey resident whose husband, George, was deaf until recent surgery restored his hearing, especially likes a neighborhood diner where one of the servers gave George’s service dog a biscuit before and after each meal.
“The server should always ask first,” Parseghian says, but offering treats and water to service animals is a considerate gesture. She also advises that anyone communicating with hearing-impaired people should face them to facilitate lip reading.
Another tip is to seat guests with service dogs out of the flow of traffic and at a table that’s large enough to allow the dog to lie down under it.
Parseghian recalls one negative experience when the couple was turned away from a restaurant on their anniversary because the manager refused to believe their dog was a service animal since her husband is not blind. Following that experience, George carries verification with him, which restaurant operators have a right to see.
As with any customer service, there is no substitute for good communication. “Treat a disabled person like you would anyone else,” Parseghian says.
Sullivan adds, “Remember the ultimate description of great hospitality for any guest: Good service means never having to ask for anything. Anticipate needs, accommodate needs, deliver and exceed expectations.”