Stephen Hiatt-Leonard

Freshii Welcomes All Customers with Open Doors

By Shen Wu Tan

The Canadian fast food chain Freshii recently launched its new accessibility program at its Chicago area locations, inviting and welcoming all customers into their stores, including those who require extra assistance.

The Freshii Assist program includes installations of Inclusion Solutions’ BigBell alert systems at 28 Chicago locations and one Evanston location, as well as company-wide training on disability awareness.

“We want to make it known to anybody in the community, whether it is a mom [with a stroller] or a disabled person or an elderly person, we are here to help them and make their day easier,” said David Grossman, the area developer of Chicagoland Freshii.

The BigBell alert systems are stationed at Freshii storefronts and enable customers without full mobility to alert company employees of anyone needing assistance. Customers press an oversized touchpad at the door, which activates a receiver by the cashier with a flashing strobe and ring tone.

In addition to the alert system, JJ’s List will host training workshops where Freshii employees will learn about individuals with disabilities and how to interact with them.

Benjamin Lachman, JJ’s List business and community engagement coordinator, said the purpose of the training is to “create a bridge between businesses and people with disabilities that allows for greater employment opportunities and a more accessible marketplace for consumers with disabilities.”

While Freshii has made an effort to build inclusivity, Patrick Hughes, the founder and CEO of Inclusion Solutions, said accessibility should be a consideration in all company blueprints.

“Every website, every store, everything we build and work with needs to be accessible,” Hughes said. “And it shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should be thought of when we build these things. And right now to this day, in my opinion, it’s an afterthought.”

Accessibility was an afterthought for a coffee shop that Stephen Hiatt-Leonard regularly visited. The Southern Illinois University student could not independently access the shop in his wheelchair. His story about inaccessibility became the driving force behind Freshii Assist.

Fed up with an entrance that was inaccessible, Hiatt-Leonard requested the coffee shop install a BigBell alert system. The corporate offices denied his request.

“I was upset and angry,” Hiatt-Leonard wrote in an email. “I involved the alderman and the Attorney General’s office on disabilities. The Attorney General’s office found they were not in compliance with the Illinois Environmental Barrier Act. That was corrected by installing an easier opening device. I still cannot enter the building.” 

Hiatt-Leonard asked that the name of the coffee shop not be released.

Hearing Hiatt-Leonard’s story, Hughes said he could not comprehend why a company wouldn’t choose to make its business more accessible with a simple touchpad on the outside of the building entrance.

“We have doorbells on our houses. Why not on our businesses? A door to some people is a barrier,” Hughes said, adding that these barriers can exclude a good portion of the consumer market.

According to the United States Census Bureau, about 7.3 percent of Chicago’s population under the age of 65 reported having a disability from 2010 to 2014.

Both Grossman and Hughes said they hope other companies start recognizing the demand for accessibility and adapt a business philosophy and model that represents a fully inclusive consumer market.

Photo at top: Stephen Hiatt-Leonard rings the BigBell alert system to request assistance outside of the Evanston Freshii store. (Patrick Hughes)