“She wanted every detail of it, so it could take her a minute for Lisa and her husband to be able to order,” Downard says. “We’re like, ‘Hey Lisa I think you should try this or try that.’ Every time they come in they get banana splits so you start to get that conversation going and she’s just like ‘I love them they’re amazing that’s my favorite part.’ Sometimes the only thing they came in for was a banana split, but she liked to explore the menu and see what else she could try. It’s not that ‘well they’ve got a burger,’ well everybody in town has a burger, you know, so what makes it different or special.”
To make sure she isn’t missing out on anything on the menu Lisa’s husband reads her the entire menu—“it was a word-by-word, line-by-line, every time they came in,” she says. Downard emphasizes Lisa’s husband didn’t skim over the menu or just give her different categories from the menu, he described each dish in detail making sure to list specific ingredients as well.
“If you’re talking to your guests you find out things you didn’t know. It was obvious when Lisa first started coming in that she was blind, but through conversations that the wait staff was having with her—you know I would always say hello but you’re running around as the operator and doing different things,” she says. “But the wait staff is who really started talking to her and what is her experience.”
Through those conversations the servers found out that as a child, Blankenship attended a school for the blind and learned how to read braille. Downard, who is a former TV broadcaster and producer, used her connections from her previous career to help improve Blankenship’s dining experience.
Working with the local Cabell Wayne Association of the Blind, Downard transformed the regular Hwy 55 menu into a braille menu for Blankenship.
“We knew she could read the braille so once you learn that element it was like that’s a really easy phone call,” she says. “She’s one of their clients that they try to assist with lots of different things being blind and they’re like ‘oh yeah we’ll get Lisa a menu, no problem at all.’ They just took a menu found a digital online version so they could just copy and paste it and translate it.”
In September, Downard and the staff of the Huntington restaurant surprised Blankenship with the new braille design. She was so excited she immediately started moving her fingers across the embossed pages.
“She was so surprised she was almost giddy and she actually asked to keep the menu because she made her order and then was like ‘I just want to hold on to it.’ I mean her fingers just go nuts across the page as she’s going through it saying oh I didn’t know this sandwich had this or that,” Downard says. “She found a typo in the first one, which was hilarious like ‘oh my gosh, she really does read it.’”
Blankenship’s special menu has its own shelf in Downard small office—“We don’t have offices I have a tiny little cubby,” she says. Sheltered from dirt and liquid, the menu is always there when Blankenship needs it.
“You see her coming through the door and somebody go get Lisa’s menu and we’ve got it ready,” Downard says. “It’s nice and hopefully the outreach gets to other folks that they can come to a restaurant and be—she just wanted to be normal, she just wanted to be like everyone else. Now she can be.”
After Downard shared Blankenship’s story on the company’s workplace network, Moore knew it was an initiative that should be implemented throughout all of the Hwy 55 locations.
“When we saw it, what was kind of neat, was seeing the other people that chimed in underneath it saying ‘What? I’d love to have one of those,’ that’s really neat even before the publicity ramped up. So, of course, we applauded Erin and her team for doing that,” Moore says. “It was just another way to just kind of extend yourself for somebody who’s a little less fortunate than you. So, you know, that fits right in because it shows that it wasn’t a slick professional ‘hey look at us aren’t we great’ kind of thing it was a ‘doing what’s right for a fellow human being’ and that’s why we did it.”
“We like to share our ‘Love Your Neighbor’ stories, so we got a nice picture with Lisa the day she came in with the braille menu and we posted it with a couple of the wait staff and said, ‘Hey this is what we did,” Downard says. “This is how its helped one client.’ Kenney actually saw it and he was like ‘I love this idea we’ve got to figure out what to do with this’ and then he called and he’s like yeah, we’ve got to figure how to do it for every store, like every store needs one of these menus because this is something different. If it made an impact on her where else can it make an impact?”