For three Saturdays in August, Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, Ill., started dinner service at 3:45 p.m., providing a time for neurodiverse guests to enjoy restaurant dining in a comfortable, sensory-friendly space.
“A friend who works with autistic children told me that stores, museums and other public places are doing quiet hours for these kids and adults,” said Sarah Stegner, co-owner and co-chef of the suburban Chicago restaurant.
To figure out how to make this happen at Prairie Grass, Stegner consulted with Hannah Rose Higdon, a professional employed at Life Guides, an organization that promotes emotional well-being in the workplace. Higdon grew up deaf and recently received a cochlear implant; she now hears and speaks normally but has a unique understanding of what it’s like to live with a disability.
“After talking with Hannah, we decide to delay the restaurant’s opening until 5:15 p.m. on Saturdays to be more inclusive of guests with disabilities,” said Stegner. During that hour-and-a-half, the atmosphere is modified to accommodate those with autism, input disorders, sensory sensitivities and other physical, cognitive or developmental disabilities.
Prairie Grass dims the lighting and provides noise blockers that customers can wear. The restaurant encourages guests to bring fidget objects and other tools and devices that they rely on. Prep cooks are in the kitchen getting ready for dinner service, but no music is allowed. And reservations are limited to three or four, to allow for more space between tables.
“Once I explained what we wanted to accomplish, the restaurant’s staff was all in,” said Stegner. Several team members come in earlier and set up the tables with glassware, cutlery and plates beforehand to assure the floor remains quiet.
The dinner menu is “basically a Prairie Grass menu,” said Stegner, but to make it easier on guests, she doesn’t include anything that takes too long to come to the table. “I wanted to provide the same restaurant experience that everyone else has,” she added.
With Higdon’s assistance, Stegner briefed her staff on how to best interact with neurodiverse guests and those with other disabilities.
“It can be kind of scary, as people don’t always know what to do or how to interact,” said Higdon. “I talked to the staff and told them ‘it’s okay not to know what to do. Just give customers the space to tell you what they need.’”
The servers quickly learned how to read the table and how to direct the conversation and provide support, Stegner added.
With Prairie Grass Cafe opening earlier than usual, Stegner had to bring in one server and the bussers for extra hours and extra pay. “The restaurant did lose money but it was worth the investment,” she said. “Creating a culture of comfort and inclusivity drives what I do.”
She related the story of one little boy who came to dine with his family and told his grandpa, “This was so fun. Can we do it again next week?”
Restaurants are not typically “safe spaces” for those with sensory issues, and Higdon hopes others will step up and do something similar, just like some grocery stores and museums have been doing.
As August draws to a close, Stegner hopes to host future sensory-friendly dining hours, perhaps once a month. “I handed out surveys to each table and will take a look back at their responses and suggestions before moving forward,” she said.
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