Many restaurants have bustling activity, loud noises, energetic crowds, and other elements that make them fun for many guests, but those same features can trigger people with sensory sensitivities, such as autism, dementia, PTSD, and ADHD.
Ron Hsu, culinary director of Humble Pie and Lazy Betty restaurants in Atlanta, decided he wanted as many people as possible to enjoy his food and hospitality, so he worked with KultureCity, a non-profit organization that specializes in people with sensory issues, to train his staff how to serve customers with those and similar conditions.
"Part of our ethos is being inclusive," Hsu said. "When [KultureCity's founder] Julian Maha was talking to me about people with disabilities not being able to dine out, I realized we weren't making it easy either."
With the Sensory Inclusive Certification from KultureCity, Humble Pie and Lazy Betty’s teams now can assist guests with sensory sensitivities in order to give them the most comfortable and accommodating experience possible. That includes recognizing people who might have those conditions, since not all sensory sensitivities are or look the same.
Hsu first heard of KultureCity about six months after Lazy Betty opened in March 2019. He started working on collaborations with the group but then COVID-19 hit, halting those efforts. As the pandemic eased, KultureCity reached out to Hsu through Instagram and talked about how helpful the training and certification could be.
"I saw a lot of the people they touched and how they are changing the world, it was so inspiring," Hsu said. "I thought, if every restaurant has to be FHP [Food Handler Permit] compliant, why not sensory too?"
There's no cost for the Sensory Inclusive Certification other than the time it takes the staff to participate, and Hsu that was outweighed by the benefits of understanding their customers better.
“All we had to do was give up four hours of the day and put things in place,” Hsu said. “It's not as hard as people think it is and it didn't change the revenue stream at all. The hardest part is having new staff get up to speed, but it's not like rocket science; it's just raising awareness."
The annual training is led by medical professionals who teach employees how to recognize guests with sensory needs and how to handle a sensory-overload situation. The program includes KultureCity sensory bags, which come equipped with Puro Sound Labs noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, and verbal cue cards to help those who can't speak or communicate in standard ways.
Place cards with the KultureCity logo also grace the restaurants so people know they are sensory-friendly. They also can spur conversation about the company, and the growing number of Americans with sensory issues.
There’s also a free KultureCity app that shows users what tools are available to them and also provides a visual preview of what guests might expect while visiting the restaurant so they can be prepared.
"It's not like every other person coming is someone you need to accommodate, but I know the families that have come in are very appreciative," Hsu said. "It's also raising the options for people with sensory needs to dine, and they should be able to eat out like everyone else."
While most of the of the venues using KultureCity's training are sporting arenas and stadiums, music halls, zoos, aquariums, and other entertainment venues, a growing number of restaurants are seeking out the training as well. That includes 23 restaurants in the Tao Group Hospitality portfolio, as well as Bottega and Chez Fonfon in Birmingham, Ala., which became certified in June. Around the same time, Constantino's in Greenwich, Conn., also teamed with KultureCity to offer sensory-friendly dining.
Overall, said Hsu, "this is about treating anyone from any walk of life the same way you would anyone else, and it's what I consider to be hospitality, taking care of whomever you can."