Participating restaurants have decals to let people know they accept the reservations.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Jenifer Apazidis remembers going out to eat with her mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Her mother was diagnosed at age 59 and looked completely young and healthy.
"She looked in her 40s, young, blonde hair, she didn't look old at all. When we'd go out to a restaurant people were so confused. She couldn't really talk. She'd try to order for herself, she tried to point to things and people looked at her like she was drunk or confused. They'd look to me and if I did anything, she would get upset. She just wanted to order on her own," Apazidis said.
Eventually, they stopped going out to eat altogether.
But Apazidis didn't forget what that felt like. Shortly after opening her own restaurant, she had a customer say her son was autistic and asked for some additional accommodations. That family seldom went out to eat because they never knew how the experience would go but this was a birthday.
Apazidis took the small list of the accommodations and worked with staff to provide it. The staff limited their interactions and had just one server -- instead of bussers and managers -- be dedicated to the table to limit distractions and changes. They make a note to avoid clanking plates. They made sure the food wasn't touching each other because that's what the boy wanted. They thought of the best seat in the house, one in the corner where the boy could see everything but still felt safe.
"They stayed there all night. They had a great time," Apazidis said.
It struck her that she'd hadn't really had many requests like that and it wasn't that hard to do. She looked back at the reservations from the prior years and found only a couple asking for such accommodations. Meanwhile, she remembers plenty of people leaving because of such things as the room is too loud for someone with dementia.
That is what triggered her idea of a "purple table." She developed trainings specifically geared toward restaurant managers and servers. The training sets guidelines and checklists of the best ways restaurant staff can interact and serve a customer with autism, Alzheimer's, dementia, and post-traumatic stress disorder and the best environment for those customers to be in.
"The No. 1 thing is being informed and aware. The host, as soon as they see that there is a purple table, they have a checklist," Apazidis said. "There is a process whenever there is a purple table. It is always there. It is just part of what we do now on a daily basis."
She launched a website and reservation process. A customer can discretely make a reservation and simply ask for a purple table -- adding in as little or as much information about the customer's condition as they choose. The restaurant staff sees that request and then implements a process to serve that table in a way that is easier for that family.
"It is not so much about the condition a person is living with, it is about creating the environment around them," she said.
After she launched the program, a young soldier who had just recently returned from two trips overseas heard about it. He has severe post-traumatic stress disorder but his girlfriend loves to go out. He struggles to be in a place if he has to sit with his back toward a door and it embarrasses him when they go places and he has to leave or ask to be moved.
He booked a table at Apazidis' Red Raven Restaurant in Acton and was happy with the accommodations without even having to explain himself. He read through the best practices Apazidis had crafted, and while they seemed relatively small, they were meaningful to him.
"He couldn't believe we hit the nail on the head without having to do anything," she said.
Apazidis has two specific tables -- identified as the best for people with such conditions -- set aside for purple table customers to choose from once they arrive.
The most important thing is having staff prepared and knowledgeable about the customer so they aren't caught off guard and vice versa, she said. Many people with such conditions often go to restaurants with a bit of anxiety wondering how the trip will go.
"I think maintaining a predictable environment at all costs is the most important part of a purple table," Apazidis said.
She added there has also been somewhat of a cultural change among staff. She said when there had been a rambunctious child in the past, behind the scenes, servers would negatively be judging and complaining about the child. But now, she said her employees wonder what is going on and how they could help. Often there are times when even though somebody didn't specifically request a purple table, she said, servers have been able to notice something with the guests and opt to use the purple table guidelines.
"We're now a better community restaurant because we offer this," Apazidis said.
The Berkshire Alzheimers Partnership recently got in touch with Apazidis and is now looking to bring her program to local restaurants. On Monday, the organization invited restaurant owners to meet with Apazidis to learn about it and are actively reaching out to other owners to tell them about it.
If a restaurant joins, Purple Table will send provide training programs, marketing material, and include them on a directory of restaurants that have purple table reservations and protocols. There is an annual fee for the program but Apazidis said having such an option has proven to bring in new customers. She said there are constantly people looking through the directory for suitable places.
The program is still relatively new, being crafted within the last year or so with fewer than 20 restaurants, and most of those eastern part of the state. But Apazidis is hoping the concept and terminology of a "purple table" will catch on.
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