The Restaurant Business Can’t Afford to Exclude Anyone

illustration accessibility wine dining wheelchair
Illustration by Barbara Spurll

Opening a restaurant in New York City is one of the hardest challenges anyone can take on, and, in my opinion, you have to be partly insane to do it.

The market is wildly competitive, and the amount of red tape that surrounds even the most miniscule decision can be a headache. Trying to obtain an NYC liquor license, for example, can take six months or more. Everything requires permits and licenses, and each comes with its own fees. The bottom line is, you never have enough money when you’re about to open a restaurant.

And yet, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. I am in the process of opening Contento restaurant in East Harlem, New York.

Oh, and by the way, did I mention that we also have the challenge of dealing with something called the coronavirus? I consider myself fortunate that we did not open the restaurant before the pandemic hit NYC, because there will certainly be new regulations going forward. Restaurants will function differently after the coronavirus shutdown is lifted, and it’s up to us to be prepared for this complicated situation.

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When Contento does open, I feel an especially urgent need to make it successful. Not just because I need to pay my staff and cover expenses, but also because I have been advocating for restaurant reform for more than 15 years.

I’ve been in a wheelchair since 2003, and I’ve called out a number of establishments for not being ADA compliant. So, it’s very important to me that Contento is both wheelchair-accessible and financially viable. I want to show other restaurateurs that making room for people of all abilities doesn’t just benefit your image, it’s also good for business.

I live and breathe the world of wine and hospitality. It’s in my blood; my father and his two brothers, all of whom immigrated from Brittany, France, worked in restaurants all my life. It wasn’t always glamorous. My father worked long hours and six-day work weeks. I only saw him on Sundays, and he was often too exhausted to do much.

This somehow didn’t deter me from pursuing a career in hospitality. By the time I was 25, I had already worked at such NYC landmarks as Le Cirque, Oceana, Jean Georges and Felidia. I had every intention of owning a restaurant by age 30. I already knew what I wanted it to be, where I wanted it to be and what it was going to be named.

All of that came to an immediate halt when, in October of 2003, I was in a car accident that left me permanently paralyzed from the waist down. With that came the possibility that everything I had worked for in restaurants was no longer possible. Friends and family members told me I should go to law school or work in finance, but I wasn’t having it. Life behind a desk was not going to happen.

So there I was at age 25, completely clueless about how to make my new life as a paraplegic work. The first months were tough. After battling infections and bouts of depression, my biggest fight was trying to find a job and acceptance in the industry I loved so much: hospitality.

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I sent out my resume to hundreds of restaurants. Many fruitless interviews later, I began to realize getting hired as a sommelier while in a wheelchair was going to be a problem.

For me to work in a restaurant, the wine cellar needs to be wheelchair-accessible, not up or down a narrow flight of stairs. Shelves have to be at a height I can reach, and dining room tables need to be far enough apart so I can elegantly wheel around the dining room without bumping into furniture. This is especially challenging in New York City, where every inch of real estate is accounted for.

When I was job hunting, I would religiously Google “wheelchair sommelier” or “wheelchair waiter.” I wanted to provide a model to hiring managers who turned me away because they didn’t think someone could possibly work the restaurant floor in a wheelchair, or, quite honestly, what their financial return would be if they took a chance on me.

I remember being interviewed at a very respected restaurant in Midtown Manhattan circa 2004 a few months after leaving the hospital, I knew immediately this was not worth my time and just rolled away without saying a word.

I sent out my resume to hundreds of restaurants. Many fruitless interviews later, I began to realize getting hired as a sommelier while in a wheelchair was going to be a problem.

In 2013, after a decade of rejection, I applied for and eventually obtained a sommelier position at one of NYC’s top private clubs, the University Club. I loved every minute of being back at work, but the dream of opening my own restaurant remained. In 2018, thanks to good luck and great advisors, I found a space I could afford and signed on the dotted line.

Now, as we get ready to open Contento, my partners and I are negotiating with what seems like an endless stream of construction crews, insurers, accountants and community boards.

Some of the most difficult logistical processes I encountered before the coronavirus shutdown in NYC involved making the space wheelchair accessible without sacrificing comfort, aesthetics and profitability. For example, I don’t want the bathroom to look like a hospital bathroom. It should look like any other beautiful bathroom in a New York restaurant.

I also want to get rid of any anxieties an individual living with a disability might have when they go to a restaurant, such as worrying if there are steps to get in, if the door is wide enough and if they can reach or sit comfortably at the tables. (PSA to restaurant-owners: Nothing is more infuriating to someone in a wheelchair than high-top tables.)

My goal is to make Contento the most inclusive restaurant in NYC. We’ll have counter-height seats at the bar for people in wheelchairs, menus available in Braille, and adaptive forks and knives. And, crucially, we’ll provide regular staff training sessions on how to serve disabled customers and be hospitable to their needs.

These things all require financial and temporal investment. But so does taking an enormous portion of the restaurant-going population for granted. There are more than 56 million people living with a disability in the U.S., and they have close to $500 million of disposable income. We need to cultivate this important population and show them we value their business. Given the tight margins of the restaurant business, who can afford to ignore them?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experience in hospitality, it’s this: Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean you can’t be the first. More importantly, make sure you leave the doors open behind you, so you won’t be the last.

Published on May 13, 2020
Topics: Outpourings