Editor’s Note: Often when people with a visible disability go into a restaurant, they often feel out of place. Perhaps the hostess and the serving staff don’t know what to do with them or how to treat them. They may be ignored. However, after hearing what first class treatment David Friedman, also known as the Disabled Foodie, discovered at the Terrace 5 Restaurant at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, that’s adjacent to the Painting and Sculpture Galleries, Wheel:Life wanted to know how the employees there had learned the proper etiquette for hosting and serving people with disabilities.
Wheel:Life contacted and interviewed Diana Burch, who manages the cafés at MoMA, the acronym for the Museum of Modern Art. “The hostess that Mr. Friedman mentioned, she’s typical of our hostesses and serving staff,” Burch emphasizes. “I think the selection and training of our staff reveals the answer of why Mr. Friedman was treated as he should have been – just like all our patrons should be treated. I think the reason that our staff was so conscious and knew how to help Mr. Friedman in his wheelchair begins with the type of people we hire.
“Our parent company is Union Square Hospitality Group. Our founder and CEO, Danny Meyer, and our company look for and hires a specific type of person. Mr. Meyer calls these people, ‘a 51 percenter.’
That 51 percent refers to the emotional quotient of the people we want to hire. We look for people with integrity and who know what the word hospitality means and how to implement hospitality.
We want our staff to have entrepreneurial spirits and to understand inherently the right thing to do when anyone comes into our restaurant, regardless of nationality, race, ability or disability. We want that the other 49 % of that person’s makeup to be their technical ability to serve our customers. We weigh heaviest on the qualities of a person’s knowing what’s the right thing to do and doing it and having a servant’s spirit to make our customers feel welcome and enjoy their visits at our restaurants.”
Union Square believes hospitality is doing something for someone instead of letting something happen to someone. As Burch explains, “Mr. Friedman wasn’t a special guest, and we didn’t treat him special. We tried to give him the same type of quality service we provide for any of our guests. We do all we can for others. We don’t believe that good service and being an advocate for our customers should be just for people with disabilities. We feel we should treat all customers that way, every day.”
Burch says that Union Square Hospitality Group recruits employees with both hospitality and service instincts. “I’m not sure you can train individuals to have those types of character traits. We want to be advocates for our customers and to make their visits to our restaurants as enjoyable as possible.”
“I think the kind of treatment Mr. Friedman received at our restaurant is more about the kind of people we hire than it is about the training programs they complete. The way our employees make other people feel is one of the most important characteristics we look for in the people we hire.”
“In most of my professional career, I’ve worked in areas with high volumes of tourist clientele, including Disney and Times Square. When numbers of visitors are coming into a restaurant to be served, you must be prepared to serve anyone with any type of disability. At some of the restaurants where I’ve worked, there’s only been one or two tables considered appropriate for people in wheelchairs.
“I can’t imagine a restaurant not having tables that someone can roll up under with a wheelchair.”
At the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, we provide plenty of tables that are available for everyone. On any given day, we may have people come to our restaurant in a power chair, a manual chair, a walker or perhaps a scooter if they have knee or leg injuries. We offer tables that make accommodations for everyone, and not just for people with disabilities.”
Burch also mentions that some customers who dine with them have numbers of shopping bags, and the restaurant must make sure there’s plenty of room for the shopping bags when they sit down to eat. Or, some customers may have children in baby carriers and need a place for the carrier and the baby while they dine. Someone may need three booster chairs at one table. A person who’s extremely large may not fit into a regular chair, and the restaurant must make that accommodation.
“We have to be prepared for and have many tables and plenty of space to accommodate everyone who dines with us,” Burch says. “Just as we know that one shoe doesn’t fit all, we believe that one size table and chair doesn’t fit everyone, or that the amount of space that a person has around a chair is suited for everyone. We don’t want any of our customers to have to wait very long for the right table that fits their needs.”
On a busy day, we may have as many as 2,000 people come into our two restaurants at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We are ready to meet the needs of a wide variety of people on any given day.
We do that because we want that business. We expect people with all types of needs to come to our restaurants to dine. We want to serve our customers with the best possible facilities and in a timely manner, so they’ll return and bring their friends with them.
We don’t feel that a person who comes into our restaurant in a wheelchair or with a baby stroller, five shopping bags or a baby carrier should have to wait any longer to be served than any of our other guests. We do our best to be friendly and seat and serve everyone as quickly as we possibly can, and we do our best to accommodate them.”
The founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, Danny Meyer, wrote a book about 11 years ago titled, “Setting the Table.” Then the company republished the book and retitled it as “The Play Book.”
According to Burch, “Mr. Meyer didn’t have any experience in the restaurant business when he opened his first restaurant in Union Square, which is the name of our company. He learned from his father and his grandfather principles of business when he was growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, that he explains in the book.
He opened his first restaurant 30 years ago, and many of these same principles of business and service guide the way he still runs his restaurants today. Today we have 1300 employees in primarily New York based restaurants, although we’ve just opened a restaurant in Chicago.
“One of Mr. Meyer’s favorite sayings is, ‘The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.’
That’s one of my favorite sayings too. If you make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and handle them properly, then you can be successful at any business and in life. These ideas line up with our company’s four family values – hospitality, integrity, excellence and an entrepreneurial spirit.
That’s the main reason I work for this company. Mr. Meyer encourages us to challenge what’s being presented as the only way to do things; and he encourages us to look for new and better ways to serve our customers, grow our business and in so doing, increase our own personal worth.”
Danny Meyer’s book also has a chapter titled, “How to Set the Table, and Who Wrote the Rule?” He challenges pre-assumed ideas that people have held as iron clad rules.
As Burch explains, “Who wrote the rule that you can’t open a drive through hamburger and custard restaurant in New York City where most people don’t have cars? By challenging those types of perceived barriers, Mr. Meyers created the first Shake Shack in downtown New York City.
His second restaurant was Gramercy Tavern. The perceived rule was that people couldn’t walk in wearing casual attire and enjoy a casual meal next to a restaurant where they could have a more upscale fine dining meal. But today you’ll see that concept spreading throughout New York City.
Although Mr. Meyer’s book relates primarily to the restaurant business, he also includes life principles that should cause us all to challenge the rules and become more than we are.
One of the major ‘who wrote the rules’ challenges that Danny Meyer and the Union Square Hospitality Group have undertaken is, who sets the rules that a customer should pay for tipping? The Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants have started an initiative to do away with tipping, and instead of the customer paying the server, the restaurant pays the server.”
Union Square Hospitality Group’s definition of hospitality that includes MoMA’s restaurants is, “Doing everything our employees can to help others and then going above and beyond what’s expected in thoughtful ways to help people know that we’re on their side and want to help and serve them.”
About MoMA Accessibility
All of MoMA’s entrances and public areas are wheelchair accessible, including the galleries, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, The Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, The Celeste Bartos Theater, the restaurants and cafés, and the MoMA Store. Elevators are available throughout MoMA.
Restrooms with adjoining water fountains are wheelchair accessible on every floor except the Titus Theater 2 level and the entry level of The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building. There is a single-user restroom located on the fifth floor.
Wheelchairs are available in the checkroom in the main lobby and can be borrowed for free on a first-come, first-served basis. Motorized wheelchairs are also permitted at MoMA. Service animals are welcome.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.