Operators are Finally Starting to Put Greater Focus on Accessibility Issues



When you consider that 20 per cent of Canadians have a disability, it only makes sense that foodservice operators would want to be fully accessible. However, Mark Wafer thinks the restaurant industry is doing a poor job on accessibility, particularly in the quick-service sector.

“If you look at the construction, or even renovations, of restaurants, accessibility is based on the lowest common denominator of [provincial building codes],” says Wafer, CEO of Megleen Treadstone and the former owner of six Toronto-area Tim Hortons franchises. “It’s what they can get away with as cheaply as possible, rather than looking at it from the point of view that having a fully accessible restaurant for workers and customers is a prime opportunity to increase sales and profitability. They tend to look at it more from a savings point of view upfront by not making restaurants as accessible as they should.”

For independent restaurants especially, cost is an issue. “A lot of the accessibility piece equates to more money and it just seems as if many [features] cost a lot,” says Silvia Guido, a Toronto-based physiotherapist and chair of non-profit organization AccessTO.

For example, Guido says a lot of restaurants and cafés would love to have an accessible door opener — not just for people with disabilities, but for older adults and parents with strollers. However, automatic door openers can cost thousands of dollars. “A lot of times they’re renting the space and the landlord doesn’t want to do it, so who’s going to pay for it?”

When it comes to accommodating staff, the cost may not be as high as operators think. Wafer says it costs $500 on average to accommodate a disabled worker if needed. This includes extra training or lowering a counter for a cashier in a wheelchair. And, he points out, 65 per cent of workers with disabilities don’t require any accommodation at all.

Roberto Sarjoo, director of Marketing and Communications at Restaurants Canada, notes Nova Scotia recently launched its “Business Access-Ability” grant to help businesses fund accessibility projects. “With the average foodservice operator generating only 4.2 per cent of pre-tax profit margin, it can be tough to undertake that investment, so to have government programs such as [this] really helps,” says Sarjoo.


When it comes to accessibility, the conversation is usually around “it’s the right thing to do.” But in today’s business world, that doesn’t work. “To me, it’s the right thing to do, but talking about it from that point of view is never going to win over a business owner,” says Wafer. “We need to get businesses to understand they’re going to make more money and the bottom line is going to be healthier by including [workers] with disabilities and by being more accessible.”

With the unemployment rate in Canada at 5.6 per cent and 20 per cent of the population having a disability, there’s a huge labour pool that foodservice operators can tap into. Wafer says when he operated six Tim Hortons franchises, he employed dozens of people with disabilities and had an emplyee-turnover rate of 40 per cent. “In a QSR restaurant, you’re looking at 100 per cent turnover and $4,000 to replace one person,” he says.

Being fully accessible also means restaurants can corner the growing seniors’ market. “As the population ages, the number of Canadians with disabilities is going to continue to increase,” says Sarjoo. “And restaurants are in the business of serving customers. You never want to alienate a customer base.”

Nando’s Canada is one foodservice company that’s made a big commitment to accessibility. “We recognize the importance of how to understand the varying needs of a guest or employee with a challenge or disability,” says Andrew Grube, head of Construction at Nando’s Canada. “By design, through our builds and our in-restaurant assets, we endeavor to make our restaurants accessible to everyone.”

Nando’s restaurants have a number of accessibility features, including braille and large-print menus, as well as wheelchair-accessible ramps, tables and washrooms. “Being fully accessible means our doors are open to any guest and it will never be a reason for a guest to turn away from our business,” says Grube. “When a guest has a special need acknowledged and embraced, it secures the potential for another visit.”

On the employee front, being accessible is a form of retention. “Creating a comfortable and accommodating work environment can also create the potential to grow into a career,” says Grube. “Turnover in the restaurant industry can be high and taking steps to educate and embrace differences increases retention, resulting in reduced training costs.”

Written by Rebecca Harris

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