Tom Landis, founder and CEO of Dallas-based Howdy Homemade, remembers walking into one of his many ice cream stores to see that his manager, who has special needs, had brought his personal drum set into the dining area, explaining that kids would enjoy playing. Before an incredulous Landis could respond, a family with young boys walked in. Their eyes lit up, they ordered their ice cream, and sat down to rock out. The drum set increased traffic for the rest of the day.
“I’ve been a restaurant owner and franchisee for 20 years, but in that moment, who was teaching who about customer service?” Landis asks.
Creative thinking is just one of the many benefits that limited-service brands can expect when they hire from developmentally challenged populations. Customer service and friendliness, product quality and consistency, retention, training, and operation procedures are all elements of the limited-service business that Landis has seen improve from having special-needs employees on staff.
The Arc, a nationwide organization advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, works with employers to support employees with disabilities. “A recent study from The Arc shows that foodservice is one area in which people with special needs are commonly employed,” says Sarah Bal, director of public relations at The Arc.
It is one of the four industries (along with retail, landscaping, and janitorial) that make up 60 percent of jobs among employed people with disabilities, the study shows. But still, only 36 percent of the study participants had a paying job, Bal says. So while foodservice has a better track record than most, the disabled worker is still a largely untapped resource.
That may be changing. As restaurants struggle to find reliable staff to fill job vacancies, some are turning to the disabled population, which in many ways seems tailor-made for the industry. Many autistic people love repetition, of which neurotypical people often tire. That can result in better job satisfaction, as well as increased product quality, Landis says. People with conditions like Down syndrome are often genuinely sincere and friendly, improving customer service, he adds.
The Arc has supported long-term employment situations, sometimes lasting for decades, in positions that often see high turnover.
Furthermore, possible new immigration policies may leave customers without a workforce upon which they have traditionally relied. Landis thinks people with special needs can fill that gap.
There are various approaches to integrating special-needs employees into a restaurant team. Howdy Homemade was purposefully designed to employ people with all types of disabilities, though conditions like Down syndrome, Williams syndrome (a developmental disorder associated with varying intellectual disabilities), and autism make up a high percentage of employees. Landis picked ice cream partly because it is easy to make and appropriate for the friendly, happy setting that he knew his staff could provide.
In a different approach, Starbucks has integrated employing people with disabilities—not just intellectual, but also physical—in an already successful business model. It has also focused on specific disabilities. The brand’s new Washington, D.C., store near Gallaudet University—a prestigious school for the deaf—hires only deaf, hearing-impaired, and hearing people who are proficient in American Sign Language (asl). This provides a welcoming space for deaf customers and employees. The National Association of the Deaf lauded Starbucks for its efforts.
The move was inspired by the success of its first-ever signing store, which opened in Kuala Lumpur in 2016, says Jessica Conradson, program manager in corporate communications at Starbucks. The coffee giant has a long history of working with deaf and otherwise disabled people and wanted to create a place that “celebrates the cultural and linguistic pride of deaf partners and brings communities together,” Conradson says.
Like Howdy Homemade, Starbucks sees distinct benefits that come from employing people with disabilities. “This team of partners with a shared language of ASL and diverse experiences within the deaf and hard-of-hearing community will help attract talent,” Conradson says. She also expects the store to help raise awareness, leading to career opportunities at and beyond Starbucks.
Employing people with disabilities can bring significant benefits, but it can also require some special considerations. If an employer is interested in hiring people with intellectual disabilities, Bal recommends reaching out to organizations like The Arc to provide helpful resources and guidance.
“The key is communicating with each individual employee—just like they would an employee without [intellectual or developmental disabilities]. The goal is simple: to understand their interests and highlight their strengths,” she says.
Landis has found that scheduling shorter shifts with more people can be beneficial since many people with special needs have been kept sedentary for much of their lives and don’t have the stamina for longer shifts. Simplified and efficient production, sales, and other processes—which all restaurants should aim for—can be especially important for success.
He encourages letting special-needs employees train each other because they have a better understanding of what needs to be said. “It’s beautiful to see the patience, the care, the pride. My special-needs managers are so much better at training special-needs [employees] than I am,” Landis says.
To ensure they got the signing store right, Starbucks engaged a network called Starbucks Deaf Leadership to implement design modifications and best practices. The store features elements of DeafSpace, a set of architectural design principles, such as low-glare surfaces. To help promote customer comfort, deaf baristas wear aprons embroidered with ASL (made by a deaf supplier) and hearing partners wear an “I Sign” pin.
It should be noted that reaching out to and making special accommodations to welcome members of the deaf community or other physically disabled groups is vastly different from doing the same with intellectually challenged groups. Nevertheless, both require advanced planning and special care. But in the end, Bal believes it’s well worth the extra effort.
“Individuals with [special needs] have just as much to contribute to the workforce as anyone else,” Bal says. “They just need to be given the chance and the appropriate supports.”
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