While dining at a Savannah, Georgia Panera Bread on January 2, Catherine Duke and her 2-year-old daughter Emma ended up walking out of the restaurant in tears after an assistant manager asked Duke to either take off Emma’s shoes or leave because the shoes were squeaky and it was “bothering someone.”
Emma is developmentally disabled and she wears special orthopedic shoes which squeak to let her know that she is walking properly. The shoes were prescribed by an orthopedist to give her better ankle support and to help her to learn to walk heel to toe. Emma has a medical condition which makes it difficult for her to walk and only learned to walk at the age of 23-months-old after the shoes were prescribed.
The event was especially shocking to the family because they are frequent customers at the establishment and the restaurant’s management knows about Emma’s disability. In addition, Duke says she explained to the restaurant employee why Emma needed the specially-prescribed shoes, yet was still asked to remove them.
The incident soon gained quite of bit of media attention, with Duke telling the news channel WTOC on January 4 that, “We weren’t welcome with the shoes – It was very blatant.” She further added that it was “very hurtful” and that she had left the restaurant crying because she felt like her child was being discriminated against.
The Duke’s could have potentially filed a lawsuit against Panera Bread, given that federal law prevents businesses from refusing service to anyone based upon race, religion, gender or other “protected characteristics” such as physical disability. However, they did not. Instead, they filed a complaint and then agreed to meet with the corporate staff, the employee who asked them to take off the shoes and the manager of the franchise to discuss what had happened. All parties involved in the incident apologized and the restaurant agreed to hold a fundraiser to help the family pay Emma’s many medical bills.
Duke seems satisfied with the arrangement to hold a fundraising night in which 50 percent of the proceeds will be donated to pay Emma’s medical bills, stating that they are “very for children” and that “this is just one of those things that happened in one of their cafes that they’re not proud of.”
Panera Bread said in its statement on the matter that “the last thing we would want to do is make anyone feel unwelcome.” The restaurant chain further noted that the assistant manager who asked Duke to remove the toddler’s shoes or leave was new to her job.
“I don’t think she quite knew how to handle customers complaining about it,” Duke said of the new assistant manager.
While Emma’s father, Stephen, says that he will most likely not return to Panera Bread, he notes that his wife will probably continue to visit in order to meet with friends. He does say, however, that he is not expecting a handout and appreciates the fundraiser and the assistance with Emma’s “enormous” medical bills.
By Nancy Schimelpfening