Why Operators Have a Unique Opportunity When it Comes to Employees and Customers with Disabilities

October 2018

Foodservice operators are always working to meet the needs of their employees and their customers, and those efforts extend to people with physical and mental disabilities as well. Today, restaurants are implementing more than just wheelchair ramps. Some are employing individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, while others are accommodating customers with varying physical disabilities. Here are some examples of operations making a difference.

Starbucks—the global coffee shop with a naming system of its own—is launching a store that employs baristas who understand sign language, some of whom are deaf themselves, in order to support deaf and hard-of-hearing customers. Known as the “Signing Store Project,” the store was scheduled for a fall 2018 opening in Washington, D.C. While the company has hired deaf employees before, this store marks the first dedicated effort to serve the deaf community. The space itself was specifically designed so that the noise wouldn’t get too loud and customers would have enough room to sign with others.

Small businesses are accommodating those with disabilities as well. Headquartered in Wilmington, North Carolina, Bitty & Beau’s Coffee Shop has 60 employees with disabilities and donates all revenue to a nonprofit that one of the co-owners started, ABLE to Work USA. The shop was originally opened in 2016 out of the owners’ personal desire to help children like their own, and in doing so, they paved a way for people with intellectual disabilities to participate more actively and feel more appreciated in their communities. The shop has been so well received that the concept has expanded to two more locations.

In a job market where approximately 70% of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed, foodservice provides opportunity. Working helps people with disabilities gain confidence and develop a sense of independence, and the nature of foodservice lends itself to them perfectly. Many tasks in a restaurant are repetitive, making them possible to master despite various disabilities. It’s also satisfying for employees with disabilities to be a part of the cooking process from start to finish. The hospitable nature of a restaurant enables them to interact socially with people they might not have otherwise, and serving others something they helped create brings a smile to everyone’s face.

Not all operations have the same freedom to hire people with disabilities. Coffee shops, bakeries and delis require much less intensive training than upscale dining restaurants. However, the overarching effort to serve everyone, regardless of ability, is an honorable one that continues to gain momentum. In some instances, it’s also the law, as the Americans with Disabilities Act helps protect consumers with disabilities from discrimination and ensures that individuals with disabilities are able to eat or work at restaurants as well as any able-bodied individual. As companies large and small continue to explore new possibilities, the integration of new policies and practices is evolving as a trend to follow.

What are your opinions about employing men and women with disabilities? Have you been to a restaurant lately that accommodates customers with special needs? Let us know on Facebook or LinkedIn. For more relevant foodservice insights, visit our Resource Center.


Hartke, Kristen. Starbucks To Open First ‘Signing Store’ In The U.S. To Serve Deaf Customers, NPR, July 2018.

Toner, Kathleen. How a cup of coffee becomes a ‘human rights movement,’ CNN, December 2017.

Maurer, Jessica. Bitty & Beau’s Announces Third Location, WilmingtonBiz, May 2018.

Chatterjee, Rhitu. For People With Developmental Disabilities, Food Work Means More Self Reliance, NPR, January 2017.

Coffaro, Kim. Is Your Bar or Restaurant Accessible?, FSR, August 2014.

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