Ice Cream Pies, Chicken Wings, and Recruiting Disabled Employees

How one person's customer experience is inspiration for more inclusive hiring practices.

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Aug 1, 2023

When my son, Donovan, turned 9, we ordered him an ice-cream pie from his favorite local shop to celebrate. Since D-man has Celiac Disease and cannot eat anything with any gluten, even ice cream can be tricky.

For the uninformed, Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune condition that affects the gastrointestinal tract when gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye — is ingested. When someone with Celiac disease eats gluten, the lining of the small intestine is damaged. In Donovan’s case, he gets serious gastrointestinal symptoms, sometimes for days.

People with Celiac disease not only become sick from ingesting gluten but also from otherwise gluten-free foods that have become cross-contaminated by coming into contact with gluten or with uncleaned items that have been used with gluten.

Thus, even if the ice cream itself contains zero gluten in its ingredients, it can still make Donovan ill if it becomes cross-contaminated (such as from a shared scoop also used with a flavor such as cookies ‘n’ cream).

Enter Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream, which is not only Cleveland’s best ice cream but also happens to be some of the best ice cream anywhere. (No, Mitchell’s did not pay me in cash or in ice cream for this unsolicited endorsement.) Mitchell’s takes its allergens seriously. All you have to do is mention a gluten allergy, and the servers know exactly what to do to eliminate any risk of cross-contamination. They not only sanitize the scooper, but also open a fresh, untouched container of the flavor-of-choice. For these reasons, we have as much confidence as one reasonably can have that Donovan can enjoy his ice cream without ingesting any accidental gluten.

And so we chose to order an ice-cream cake from Mitchell’s based on past experiences of it preparing a gluten-free ice-cream cake without using its typical and customary cake base. When we attempted to place our order, however, the store’s staff informed us that the company decided to discontinue its prior practice of gluten-free, ice-cream-only cakes. “We don’t do that anymore,” the store said.

Unwilling to accept “no” for an answer, I asked for the store manager to give me a call. He explained that his hands were tied and that Corporate decided that a missing cake base allowed for too many irregularities in shape. Thus, no more gluten-free cakes.

Still unwilling to accept a flat “no,” I asked for the phone number of Pete Mitchell, one of the company’s founders, owners, and executives. With the phone number in hand, I left a message for Pete, explaining my dilemma, asking that he make an exception for Donovan.

Within a couple of hours, the store manager with whom I had previously spoken, Adam, called me back. He said that Pete Mitchell had received my message. Pete called Adam, and they discussed a possible solution, which Adam relayed to me. Instead of making a gluten-free cake, they could clean and sanitize a pie tin and create a gluten-free birthday “pie.” Problem solved.

Flash-forward six years to a recent family vacation to the Finger Lakes. We specifically chose the Fargo Bar & Grill for a family dinner because its online menu marked chicken wings as gluten-free. When Donovan ordered his meal, however, the server responded that the wings themselves are gluten free raw, but the meal itself is not because the wings are cooked in a shared fryer.

Despite being put off by the misrepresentation on the menu, it was late, the eight of us had driven 20 minutes to get there, and we were hungry. “Is there any way the kitchen can prepare the wings separately, like in a pan of oil on the stove top? We don’t mind waiting a little longer for our food so that our son can eat.”

After checking with the kitchen and her manager, the server returned with the bad news. “I’m sorry,” she said. “They can’t do that.” So we left.

What do ice cream pies and chicken wings have to do with your recruiting practices? These stories teach us how to be inclusive in recruiting disabled employees.

  • Create an inclusive environment that ensures that your workplace is accessible and accommodating to people with disabilities.
  • Develop inclusive recruitment policies and procedures that explicitly welcome candidates with disabilities and make it clear that your organization values diversity and is committed to providing equal opportunities for all.
  • Offer internships or training programs targeted at disabled individuals to identify talented candidates and provide them with the necessary support and training.
  • Collaborate with disability advocacy groups and organizations to connect with potential candidates. These groups can help you reach out to a broader talent pool of disabled individuals.
  • Train your recruiters, hiring managers, and human resources team on best practices for interviewing and evaluating disabled candidates to help reduce biases and ensure a fair evaluation process.
  • Raise awareness about disability-related issues among all employees to foster a more understanding and empathetic work culture.

When you are recruiting disabled employees, be inclusive like Mitchell’s and not exclusive like the Fargo. Your workplace will be better for it.

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