, Employees huddle behind the counter at Fare Well scribbling notes to each other on the backs of receipts. They’re not writing nasty notes about customers behaving badly. They’re simply communicating. The vegan bakery, diner, and bar on H Street NE employs two deaf workers, including Hillary Peters, who works variously as server, bartender, and manager.
Peters graduated in May 2016 from Gallaudet University, where she studied social work and art history. She’s currently working three jobs to save up to for graduate school to study transpersonal art therapy and mental health counseling so she can become an art therapist. But she’s not opposed to opening a restaurant one day—perhaps a daytime cafe that evolves into a bar at night. (So hot right now.)
She got her first taste of working in hospitality at an on-campus restaurant called Boomerang Cafe that has since closed. “I discovered that I really enjoyed the customer service, seeing the customers being happy once I give them delicious drink and food,” Peters says. Whether she starts an art therapy practice or a restaurant, Peters has a hiring plan. “I would give job opportunities to deaf people only because hearing people already have privilege, and deaf people need them [jobs] much more.”
Fare Well owner Doron Petersan says Peters has confided in her about how difficult it is for the deaf to find work outside of D.C., where there’s less understanding of deaf culture. “She was telling me stories of friends of hers who are on disability and unemployment because they moved back home after Gallaudet and can’t get jobs for the summer,” Petersan says. “They say, ‘You can’t work here unless you can speak.’ How fucking fucked up is that?”
When customers sit down, Peters drops off a note to introduce herself and informs the table that she’s deaf. They will need to write down their orders and give her a little wave if they need to summon her. “She’s the most attentive server that we have because she’s constantly focused on her tables,” Petersan says. “She’s always watching.”
Service almost always runs smoothly. “Most people, 99.9 percent of people, are really inviting,” Petersan explains. “When people don’t know, they think she’s ignoring them. That’s really frustrating for me that we’re in a culture where people don’t ask questions and give people the benefit of the doubt. As a business owner, it’s frustrating. As an employer, it’s frustrating. As a human being, it’s frustrating.”
Peters says the most trying day she’s had on the job was when the computer system went down. She had to explain the problem to all of her customers, which took a while. But that would be a bad day in anyone’s book.
Hiring deaf employees and catering to the deaf community are good for business, Petersan says.. “Going around to different restaurants—Impala, Pursuit Wine Bar, The Argonaut—and watching the way they catered to that crowd, I want to be able to do that,” she says, reflecting on the time leading up to when Fare Well opened last summer. “I want to be the place for everyone.”
Helming a restaurant that can accommodate everyone was a chief goal of Petersan’s because of her personal experience.
“My father had a really rare disease and ended up in a wheelchair,” Petersan explains. “The reason people in wheelchairs are grumpy is because life is fucking frustrating, and anything you can try to do to make an open environment is better for everyone.” Her father was a huge advocate of inclusivity and worked to help disabled students in public schools get the resources they needed to achieve.
“I think we grew up in a time where people with different abilities were isolated from people who are more normal functioning, and that’s not what we do anymore and I love it,” Petersan says.
Tour Fare Well and you’ll notice tables that can easily accomodate wheelchairs. There’s even a major dip at one of the diner’s bar so that someone in a wheelchair could scoot in, order a drink, and watch it being made instead of staring at a wall. The cases displaying the pastries are also lower. “A lot of places, the counters are high so people in wheelchairs can’t see, and that’s not nice,” Petersan says.
Going the extra mile to be inclusive can pay off. “At our very first location [of Sticky Fingers], we had a doorbell for people in wheelchairs,” Petersan says of her first business. “There was a couple who chose us for their wedding cake because of that doorbell!”
Fare Well, 406 H St. NE; (202) 367-9600; eatfarewell.com