The Red Robin Effect

Red Robin: a comforting, bustly sort of place where the food and music compete to see who can be the cheesiest. The birthday rituals are silly, the menu puns are cringe-worthy, and the food requires hours of hard work to digest. It’s one of my favourite places, and now that all locations in my area are closing, I think it’s time I wrote about everything it has meant to me.

I moved to the City of Edmonton to attend university at seventeen—a wide-eyed small-town girl with woefully little knowledge of what was about to hit me. Being visibly disabled in a rural setting came with its own challenges, but given enough time and community involvement, virtually everyone felt comfortable with Meagan and her long white stick. I wasn’t always included, but I was, at the very least, known.

Without warning, after seventeen years of solid familiarity, I was in chaos. I didn’t know anyone, and nobody knew me. My blindness fascinated and frightened people. I could no longer walk into a new environment and assume my welcome. Strangers had questions. Acquaintances had more of them. I had never felt so visible and at the same time, invisible. Reduced to a curiosity, I felt unmoored, lonely, and unsure of where I belonged. Everywhere I went, I was an inconvenience, or a safety concern, or another burden busy people didn’t have time for.

Not so with Red Robin.

Given that my residence building was steps from the nearest Red Robin location, I found myself visiting regularly. At first, it simply seemed the most logical place to take just about everyone; the food was reasonably tasty and even more reasonably priced. I soon realized I was enjoying far more than the gooey cheese sticks and nostalgic mid-2000’s playlist, however. I was experiencing, for the very first time, unconditional inclusion I didn’t have to earn.

The staff knew about their own braille menu, (by no means a given), handing it over without batting an eye. Servers nearly always described the location of dishes and drinks when setting them down, as casually as if every single diner needed the same detailed information. Plenty of extra help was offered, but never foisted upon me. When I showed up with visually impaired friends, no one seemed flustered or out of their depth. When paratransit took ages to pick me up, they let me hang out in their comfy seating area without a whisper of annoyance. Not once in seven years of frequent visits did I feel like anything less than a valued customer—a customer worthy of the same professionalism everyone else received as a matter of course.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But several of my friends agree that, whether through diligent training or a generally positive culture, Red Robin has cultivated broad, environmental inclusion of their blind customers on a grand scale few other businesses have managed. For me and for many, they have danced delicately along that razor-thin line between help and hindrance; attentiveness and intrusiveness; kindness and condescension. And they have done so in a way that will always set them apart.

My husband and I enjoyed one final dinner at Red Robin, waxing nostalgic and eating far too much. We reminisced not only about our first date there, or the many happy evenings I’d whiled away as a student, but also of the effortless way I’d fit in. Red Robin had taken on an almost mythical greatness in my mind. It had become a safe haven where I could just about guarantee I wouldn’t be spoken to like a child. They’d never have a menu I couldn’t read independently. The servers wouldn’t talk to my tablemates to find out what I’d like to order. No one was about to grab me without asking, tell me a menu item I’d chosen was “too hands-on” for a blind person to manage, or refuse to help me operate the debit machine (the idea that blind people can and do pay for their own meals is too much for some, sadly). In short, I could walk into any Red Robin, any time, and expect to be treated with dignity.

I no longer have a starving student’s appetite, nor am I able to gobble fish and chips the way I once did—at least, not without plenty of protests from a stomach that has been spoiled by a healthy diet. I won’t miss the bottomless fries or the syrupy cocktails. But I will miss the incredible luxury of knowing that I can come through that door with my long white stick, and sit down to a peaceful dinner like everyone else. I’ll forever be grateful to all the folks at Red Robin for giving me the gift of forgetting, if only for half an hour, that life isn’t always this simple.