Minneapolis Cocktail Lounge Prioritizes Accessibility for All Patrons

Hospitality businesses want to be welcoming spaces—that's part of the business model.

Unfortunately, for patrons who live with disabilities, bars and restaurants are often uncomfortable or difficult to navigate. The cocktail room at Minneapolis’ Brother Justus Whiskey Company seeks to change that status quo, with design features that make it a truly inclusive space.

“It’s not acceptable for us to exclude a whole group of people because they require more space because of their mobility issues, or whatever it is,” says distillery founder and CEO Phil Steger. Noting that the company is named after a real-life Benedictine monk, he cites the Benedictine value of hospitality—recognizing every person as if they have divine dignity—as a personal belief and company value.

During the planning process for the cocktail room, Steger mentally walked through the space, imagining what the experience would be like for various patrons. “My original vision was a regular bar, 40 inches or 42 inches off the ground. I imagined a person coming in in a wheelchair and saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to sit at the bar.’”

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“I would be ashamed if we told that person, ‘I’m sorry, but we have a nice table over there for you.’ That’s really where it started. I thought, we have to rethink this whole thing. We have to make sure we’re building a cocktail room that is structurally, physically, and systemically accessible to any person that comes through the doors, however they move around, however they perceive the world, and however they cognitively process it.”

Steger knew that he needed to work with experts to achieve the accessible space he envisioned. He tapped WeCo, a Minneapolis-based accessibility consulting firm that typically helps companies assess and improve the accessibility of their websites.

“We’re a group of digital technologists with disabilities,” says WeCo founder and president Lynn Wehrman. “We bring subject matter expertise to life for the companies we work with.”

Due to the pandemic, the consulting process was conducted via Zoom. The Brother Justus team provided the testers with the schematics for the space, verbally relying information to the testers who are blind. The group virtually explored the cocktail room experience moment-by-moment, from opening the front door to sitting at a table and enjoying a drink.

The testers, who live with a variety of cognitive, hearing, mobility, and sight disabilities, were able to flag potential accessibility issues. For example, a sink by the front door would be difficult for people using wheelchairs to access. A tester with autism provided insights about how sound, color, and texture affect his experience. The group discussed how the crowd would flow, and how someone who is blind would be able to mix in with that flow.  

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Table height was another concern. “In one case, a WeCo staff member who had served on an event committee was totally left out of the post-event celebration because everyone was sitting at a high-top table, and she was in a wheelchair.  There were no other table options in this bar, so she sat in the corner by herself,” says Wehrman.

“A learning that came out of this [for me]—I sort of had some sensitivity to it but they really drove it home to me—there are ways to be physically accommodated, and emotionally and socially humiliated,” says Steger. Even if there are no physical barriers, a space can still be inaccessible. “There are psychological and social barriers [that can make the experience] alienating and isolating even, if it's not physically obstructive.”

Today, the completed Brother Justus cocktail room includes several accessibility features inspired by feedback from the WeCo testers. The entryway is wide with an open floor plan, so people using wheelchairs and mobility aids can easily move through the space without disrupting traffic flow. The sink has faucets close to the sides, enabling people in wheelchairs to pull up alongside and easily wash their hands. Hallways are wide enough so that two people using wheelchairs could come opposite to each other and be able to pass. 

The bar has ends that are at dining table-height, making bar seating accessible to people using wheelchairs. “It doesn’t feel like a special ‘reserved for people in wheelchairs table’—it’s one of the most beautiful and sought-after tables in the house, because it feels like a chef's table at the bar,” says Steger.

In addition, the color scheme was designed to consider those with cognitive disabilities. “People who are not on the [autism] spectrum experience it as a really beautiful aesthetic,” says Steger. “People who are on the spectrum experience it as a soothing and calming experience where they’re not being agitated by the sensory input.”

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“No one without a disability probably notices these quote-unquote accommodations, and that was our goal,” he continues. “We want these accommodations to be seamless, so that it just feels like luxury for every guest. But [for] those guests who do have disabilities, they feel like they’ve been thought of.”

When bars and restaurants are seeking to make their spaces more accessible, Steger and Wehrman emphasize that the first step must be a conversation.

“It’s absolutely essential to talk to people who live with disabilities, and involve them in the process, and create a very open and honest environment where you listen,” says Steger.  

“It’s easy to assume you understand what we need by following ADA specs, for instance, but our needs are more varied and complex than a set of regulations. The only way to know is by asking us,” says Wehrman. She notes that accessibility consulting firms such as WeCo, and advocacy groups for people living with disabilities, are often happy to share their expertise and make suggestions. 

Wehrman also underscores the importance of considering people living with a variety of disabilities, particularly cognitive disabilities. “Bars and dance venues with flashing lights need to be careful, because strobe flicker can trigger seizures for people with epilepsy and other seizure disorders, which can be life threatening.”

She urges businesses to make their written materials (such as signage, menus, and websites) simple and free from jargon, noting that it benefits everyone and especially benefits people living with cognitive disabilities.

But what about the bottom line, especially when the hospitality industry is still reeling from the economic impacts of COVID-19?

“[Accessibility] is not unattainable, nor does it have to be costly,” says Wehrman.  “It can be as simple as putting a statement on your website main page, or on your front door, that you are disability friendly, encouraging people to ask for the assistance they need.”

“For our team, the request would most often be having someone meet us at the door and guide us to a table. Small businesses are uniquely suited for that kind of personalized accommodation. And it can go a long way in a community of people who pass on to each other which businesses are friendly to them, and which are not.”

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