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ADA Considerations in Foodservice Design

The Americans with Disabilities Act impacts the way customers enter and exit foodservice operations and experience every point in between. Two critical aspects of foodservice operations that continue to evolve are serving and seating areas.

As customers approach serving lines, for example, they may need to make decisions about what menu items they will select. Avoiding bottlenecks is important, so menu boards, whether printed or digital, must be easy to read. Positioning them along an entrance wall or above counters before or as customers reach the beginning of the line allows guests to view food options and begin to decide what they’d like to order. As operators take these considerations into account, they must also look to ADA guidelines to ensure that customers with disabilities are well served.

abilitylab cafe customerShirley Ryan AbilityLab

Navigating the Service Area

The height of service lines must be 34 inches to comply with ADA guidelines. The height can be 36 inches if staff hand menu items such as coffee or pastries to customers, according to Thomas Galvin, FCSI, president, Galvin Design Group Inc., Winter Garden, Fla. In most situations, though, Galvin cautions against putting in counters more than 34 inches high. “An operator may change the menu or service style,” he says.

The ADA may require a height of 34 inches, but operators may choose to make their counter heights even lower. For example, Galvin says he specifies a 30-inch height for service lines at elementary and middle schools to compensate for the shorter stature of young students. In the retail cafe at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (SRAL) in Chicago, which serves patients recovering from traumas, strokes, sports injuries and other situations, counters are 32 inches.

“SRAL’s retail servery is a food court concept that uses visual displays of featured menu items to merchandise menu options,” says Connie Dickson, FCSI, principal at Rippe Associates in Minneapolis. “Since menu items displayed at serving counter height are not easily seen by customers in wheelchairs, the design team worked with a manufacturer to develop a unique design feature.” That feature is a mirrored plexiglass panel above the protector shelf glass, adjusted to provide a view of menu items for guests in wheelchairs.

The design team also considered how customers in wheelchairs approach counters and reach food. The lower front serving counter angles back to the toe kick to improve customers’ reach from wheelchairs to menu items. “The combination of concave curves and an angled front led to using a plastic laminate on the counter backings to maintain consistent color,” Dickson says.

The SRAL retail area also features a generous amount of space for circulation to account for the high proportion of customers in wheelchairs.

At display cooking stations, where ingredients sit in cold, hot and ambient wells for customers to select, place in bowls and hand them to cooks to prepare, accommodations must be made for those customers who are unable to choose items themselves. Customers must be able to easily see the items so that they can direct the chef to select which ingredients they’d like them to add to their dish.

At Pennswood Village, a continuing care retirement center in Newtown, Pa., Director of Dining Services Mary Cooley developed the service line to enhance the mobility of residents, many of whom are ambulatory but may use walkers, canes, wheelchairs or electric carts. “The guests must be able to flow smoothly through our operation,” she says. “We take the time to look at traffic patterns so we know what happens at each step along the way when guests arrive in the dining room. How high is the food displayed? How high is the digital menu? We’ve put written menus at eye level at the tray and utensil pickup area.

“We’ve visited multiple retirement communities,” Cooley adds. “Operations with breaks between multiple stations are very nice, but many elderly people often don’t have enough balance to go from station to station without continuous flow. We learned that we must have a tray slide that supports them all the way through.” Scatter-system stations for mobile staff and residents are also set up in the same room. “The menu drives our decisions, but we must build in flexibility and look at the capacity of our customers to determine traffic flow,” she says.

Whether to use tray slides is another consideration in making service line design ADA compliant. Many colleges no longer use tray slides because they have gone trayless, but tray slides remain necessary at many other operations. A 34-inch high quartz top is often a good substitute for a separate tray slide, notes Christine Guyott, RD, FCSI, principal at Rippe Associates.

Operators and consultants often express concern about whether food shields effectively achieve their intended purpose of protecting food from contaminants. Nevertheless, local health codes and food safety best practices often call for food shields in most self-service situations, even though the shields may affect customers’ ability to reach menu items. And specific health department requirements will vary from one municipality to another. For example, codes require food shields for equipment such as soup wells covered by lids. “When the lid is up you can break the glass on the food shield, so caution must be taken,” Galvin says.

Fortunately, designers can choose from several styles of food shields, many featuring adjustable glass heights and angles. For many operations, Galvin prefers food shields positioned at 90 degrees to the counter. He also prefers a thick, tempered glass so staff can place display props and even food on the shields if state regulations allow it. “A slightly green tint on the glass is aesthetically pleasing,” he adds.

Finally, once customers make it through the service area, their dining experience must be comfortable. Aisles between tables must be at least 36 inches wide so customers with disabilities can maneuver safely. Condiments, flatware and other accessories must be within reach of customers in wheelchairs, unless employees are around to assist. Obstacles within pathways, such as risers or steps, must be “cane detectable,” meaning someone with a vision impairment can detect them with a cane.

In the seating area, at least 5 percent of the tables must be ADA-compliant. This means that spaces must be available for wheelchairs and a floor area of 30 inches by 48 inches should be available for wheelchair accessibility. The tabletops themselves must measure between 28 inches and 34 inches in height and there should be knee room under the table or a seating counter measuring 27 inches high, 30 inches wide and 19 inches deep.

What the Future Holds

One of the things that has allowed the ADA to evolve over the years is the fact that the act does not provide a comprehensive list of disabilities to consider. Instead, “ADA defines disability as a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity,” says Pamela Williamson, assistant project director of the Southeast ADA Center in Atlanta.

In fact, lawsuits in recent years emphasize just how broad the scope of the ADA could be. Two quick-service chains have been sued by sight-impaired customers who allege that late-night drive-thru-only access to restaurants is unfair to people who cannot drive. A suit against McDonald’s was dismissed in 2017, but a second complaint was filed recently against Taco Bell for its drive-thru-only policy at night.

Other lawsuits brought by sight-impaired people have alleged that websites and mobile apps are discriminatory and it is easy to see how similar complaints can be made regarding ordering kiosks in restaurants.

“Companies will have to find ways to deal with such issues,” says Williamson, “or they will see more lawsuits being filed against them.”

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