- By JANET ROCHE & CAROLYN ROBBINS
- Edited by: Andrew Parrella
- Guest: Yannick Benjamin
- Photos Credit: Mikhail Lipyanskiy Photography
We all love to go out to a nice restaurant and enjoy a fine meal, but it isn’t always easy for someone with a disability. A poorly thought out space can make for an uncomfortable or unsafe experience for those patrons. Enter Contento NYC… great food, great wine, and a great space for all, whether you have a disability or not. Going beyond the ADA basics, what challenges did they face, and what solutions did they cook up to to lessen the limitations and still provide the best service? IDP talks to Yannick Benjamin, owner of Contento NYC, to bring you a taste of what it takes to create a restaurant design without barriers.
Guest: Yannick Benjamin, is a restaurant owner and disabilities advocate. His passion for advancing opportunities for those living with disabilities led him to create two organizations (Wheeling Forward; Wine on Wheels) that both bring awareness and best practice solutions to the hospitality industry, and far beyond.
• Contento NYC – Instagram: @ContentoNYC
• Wine on Wheels – Instagram: @wineonwheelsNYC
• Jean Paul Viollet – Adaptive Sommelier Tray
Contento NYC: Serving Up Inclusive Design
Guests: Yannick Benjamin
(Music 1/ Show Intro)
Janet: In this series we will be discussing specific examples of design techniques that make a positive difference for people living with certain human conditions.
Carolyn: The more a designer understands the client and or the community the more effective and respectful the design will be.
Janet: Welcome to Inclusive Designers Podcast, I am your host, Janet Roche…
Carolyn: and I am your moderator, Carolyn Robbins…
Janet: Carolyn, we have such a wonderful show today! Our guest is Yannick Benjamin— a restauranteur and expert sommelier with a truly inspiring story!
Carolyn: Yes, and we are very happy to add this to our menu as the first episode for 2022!
Janet: Did I ever tell you that one of my very first words was ‘restaurant’? It just goes to show you what was important to me at a very young age.
Carolyn: And I’ll bet the word ‘design’ wasn’t far behind.
Carolyn: You also have a great story from maybe two days before we interviewed him…
Janet: I do. So what happened was I turned on the TV to PBS, and there was Lydia Bastianich profiling Yannick and his restaurant ‘Contento’ on her show called Lidia Celebrates America: Overcoming the Odds…
Carolyn: And you called me, like, ‘omg, turn on PBS’…
Janet: That’s right.
Carolyn: And I highly recommend our listeners give it a look… it was a very ‘tasteful’ segment.
Janet: Oh boy. Well, ignoring that pun, we should mention that Yannick is also in a wheelchair himself and designed his restaurant to reduce physical barriers and to be inclusive for everyone.
Carolyn: We should also note that there was some construction being done at the restaurant which you will hear in the background of our interview. The work on improving their space didn’t stop down for us as Contento continues to ‘serve up’ their best as an inclusive environment.
Janet: (chuckles) I think you’ve reached your pun quota for this intro… but we do think these ‘oh so familiar sounds’ that we know and we love only add to the charm of this interview.
Carolyn: You work with construction, you deal with contractors, you know these sounds.
Carolyn: Just to give you a sample of Yannick’s story, not only is his restaurant ‘Contento’ designed to be accessible to patrons with disabilities, he also started two organizations: ‘Wheeling Forward’ to help those living with disabilities, and ‘Wine on Wheels’ that promotes expanding opportunities for the disabled within the hospitality industry.
Janet: But we’ll let him tell us about all of that and more in his own words.
Carolyn: And with that, here is our interview with Yannick Benjamin… Restauranteur, Sommelier, and Disability advocate…
(Music 2 – Interview)
Janet: Welcome Yannick. We’re so excited to have you today. Thank you so much for being here and being on our podcast, Inclusive Designers.
Yannick: Well, thank you very much for having me. It’s a real pleasure and an honor.
Janet: Thank you. Let’s just dive right on into it. (Y: sure). Tell us a little bit about you, your restaurant and the inspiration behind it.
Yannick: Yeah, thank you for your question. I’m born and raised in New York. Both of my parents are from France and they’re both in hospitality or they were. My mom worked cleaning houses. She worked for a lot of different families and my dad came to New York in 1963. He followed his two oldest brothers who came here already. My father came right after the French Algerian war. And he started working as a dishwasher for his brother who was a general manager at a very famous French restaurant which still exists called La Grenouille, which is pretty much directly across the street from the big famous Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. (J: huh).
And of course, being that my father was incredibly close with his two brothers, they only had Sundays off, they would come over and I would just hear them talk about the restaurant business as a kid. And I just thought it was such an exciting profession, seemed like there was so much happening. It just seemed kind of glamorous. (J: laughs).
And I grew up, you know, in a New York that was, I guess on one hand was exciting and glamorous, but then on the other side, wasn’t, depending on where you lived at. And I grew up in a working-class neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen, which was on the west side of Manhattan, which was not so glamorous. So it was very much a blue collar, hardworking neighborhood. (J: right). And so hearing about all these exciting stories kind of took me away from that part of town and allowed me to dream and imagine. So pretty much at a very young age, I knew that I wanted to be in the hospitality industry and be like my uncles and be exactly like my dad.
Janet: That’s, that’s a great story. And by the way, yeah, Hell’s Kitchen doesn’t exactly inspire some sort of a white picket fence kind of, (Y: that’s true) right, exactly. So, tell us a little bit more about the restaurant itself and what was your inspiration? (Y: yeah). I mean, obviously, you have a whole bunch of like with the family background and, (Y: yeah) it’s in your blood, right, so (Y: yeah) but what was the inspiration for ‘Contento’?
Yannick: Well, I’m just going to, I’ll break it up into a couple of points to make it as easy as possible. Being that you guys are from up north as well, my favorite TV show growing up as a kid was ‘Cheers’. (J: laughs). And I just loved the dynamics of ‘Cheers’. And on top of the fact that I already wanted to be in hospitality, I knew that if I was ever going to open up a kind of like restaurant, bistro, whatever you want to call it, I wanted to have that same kind of feeling.
I wanted to be that guy, that centerpiece and have all his friends around him and just have a good time while at work. Right? Be happy when I was going to work and be happy when I was going to leave work. So that also helped me come up with the name ‘Contento’ (J: right) because happy, being happy, is really in the pursuit of happiness. Right? (J: Right) So ‘Contento’ means happy both in Italian, and in Spanish.
And where the restaurant is located, we’re located in a pretty historical neighborhood in East Harlem. It was predominantly Italian immigrants in the early 1900s, and then it transitioned into a mostly Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Latino, Mexican, you name it. So I really wanted to figure out a way to pay homage to all of these immigrant groups that really kind of added so much flavor to what we know East Harlem as today. And so, Contento was just an obvious choice because again, Contento means happy in Italian, (J: Italian), and in Spanish, and then really kind of fits to what my philosophy is.
So then that’s how that happened. The location where we’re at today. I discovered it a few years ago, along with my partner and dear friend, George Gallego, who actually was assigned to me as my mentor, when I was in a car accident in 2003. Unfortunately, that car accident in 2003 left me permanently paralyzed at the age of 25-years old. So a lot was happening at that time of my life. Things were looking very good. I was very motivated. I was incredibly hardworking and I was, I had a pretty extensive resume that I built. And you could say that I was incredibly ambitious. I was well on my way to doing great things I think in, in the hospitality field.
And then I found myself paralyzed. And while I was in rehab, I was assigned a mentor, because there’s really no handbook that’s handed to you. (J: right). Well, this is how things are going to be, and this is how you’re going to do things going forward as a paraplegic, as a full-time wheelchair user. So I was handed this wonderful gentleman, George Gallego, who was already injured for quite a long time. And we had stayed in touch even after I left rehabilitation. Where we really bonded was, I wanted to be active in wheelchair sports. And he really helped me transition, where I did a lot of New York City marathons, I did Boston, Chicago, so on.
But anyway, he was, he’s what he calls himself, and I agree, a social entrepreneur. He’s got his hands in a lot of different things, very, very incredibly motivated individual, but also very generous. And he said, Yannick, he said, you need to be working for yourself. I want to see you open up your own place. And I just thought, George, you have no idea (J: laughs) how incredibly brutal and unforgiving this industry is. Well, in any case, he was walking by this spot that was literally a hundred feet away from the building that he lives at right now. He was walking his dog. He contacted me. He said that this spot looked very interesting and then that’s how Contento came about.
But I think what really makes Contento unique and what makes it stand out is that because I myself have a disability and it’s so important that, if I’m going to work at a restaurant, that things are very well calculated, right? (J: right). And that things are very well thought out and laid out. So there has to be thoughtful design behind it. How the bar is set up, the fact that I can be able to do a 360 around that. The fact that someone that’s on a wheelchair that comes to the restaurant as a patron can also eat and drink at the bar comfortably.
So counter seating, table heights, space in between the tables, people able to roam freely. So there’s not just myself that has a disability, that, that’s part of Contento, but there’s also George Gallego and then four others. So collectively there’s six people that are involved with the Contento project. So having that meaningful design and that thoughtful design is really, really incredible. And that’s what really makes it unique I think from a lot of other restaurants. Not just in New York and not just the United States, but globally.
Janet: I totally agree with you, and that’s why I really wanted to have you on the show. When designers hear that I’m a designer for people with different types of living conditions, that they tend to think that I’m the person to go to get around the ADA, to get around the codes that have been put in. And so, I am here to say to you, so that, we’ve got Yannick Benjamin, who has created a successful restaurant while also having everything that’s beneficial for everybody and for full inclusion which I think is such an amazing point of this.
And this was the driving force for me to like, well hound you, that’s the only way to describe it. (Y: ha-ha). So, I mean, what was the, let’s talk about a little more about the design. (Y: yeah). So what were some of the challenges with this space? I mean that the bathroom is always huge, right? I mean, (Y: yeah), that’s just that sort of ADA 101, and we won’t even get into the fact that when people use it as storage, right.
Yannick: Yes, unfortunately, yes.
Janet: Or I always love when they put the big barrels (Y: yeah) well, paper towels. Like, well, you know, like wastepaper baskets, (Y: yeah) like in front of the toilet as well. (Y: yeah) I could go on… but for you, you have a really unique point because you’re the entrepreneur, you’re the restauranteur, you’ve been doing this for, forever. So what was the challenges on that space? Like, did you get all the tables that you needed to get in there? Maybe we could start with that.
Yannick: Well, I’ll tell you the biggest challenge of that particular restaurant, I would say, I think the most important thing why I decided to go into that space was, you know, for all of you who don’t know, when you’re going to start a restaurant from the bottom up and this space was empty, it was bare, it was neglected. So there was a lot of work that needed to be done.
So it’s a very expensive project to get involved with, any kind of restaurant. Even if it’s like bare minimum, kind of the essentials, it’s still very expensive. It’s a big investment. (J: right). But the most important that was attractive was that the rent was incredibly cheap. (J: laughs). So the landlord was very generous. Very cheap. I mean, it’s crazy. And then also he gave us 9-months’ rent free to construct and build out. (J: wow). So those were very attractive (J: offers) proposition, offers, exactly.
But I would say, the biggest challenge on the other end of that was that the space, it’s incredibly small. And in an ideal world, you know, if you wanted to create a perfectly universally designed business or a restaurant, you’d want a really big space. I would probably say the size of our restaurant is probably slightly over 1200-square feet. (J: oh). So you can imagine that’s not very big. (J: no). It’s not very big when you consider that you’ve got to build a dishwasher, you’ve got the kitchen. Then on top of that, you’ve got to build a really big wheelchair accessible bathroom. So that doesn’t leave you much in the way of square footage, as far as the actual main dining room. And we were left with probably just under 600-feet, (J: hmm), which means that left us with about 35-seats in total with the restaurant.
Now, that’s not including the fact that if we really wanted to, let’s say, if we, this was purely a business that was run by able-bodied individuals, you would have more tables, but that’s not the case. I needed to get around, George needed to get around. And so we didn’t put as many tables, so it’s not as clustered as a typical small restaurant. But what that means also is that means it’s less revenue. (J: right).
So those are some of the challenges, as far as all of that goes. But what I will say is that, because of the sacrifices that we made and because of the mission that we’re on, and the agenda that we’ve decided to stay on, we have seen an incredible amount of support of people with disabilities who have come to our restaurant.
Because I think that, you know, the most important thing, you know— I really want to stress this and I say this to everybody— you could design a perfectly, beautifully, you know, well thought out business that’s completely ADA compliant, that’s accessible, that’s clever… but if the people that are working there are not trained to deal with people with disabilities, aren’t cultured, aren’t educated and they’re just, aren’t kind enough, all of that will mean Nothing. It’s so secondary. And so I think that people who have disabilities who have decided to become regulars, who decided to support us, know that they’re going to a place that’s one: safe, two: that’s comfortable, that’s empathetic to their needs.
But no one’s ever going to be judged or treated differently because they’re rolling up in a wheelchair, because they have a guide dog. But instead, we’re going to embrace them and we’re going to really appreciate them, because… you’ve got to think about it this way: Imagine the effort that it’s taken that person in a wheelchair to get to your establishment… maybe dealing with broken elevators, their paratransit being late, could be very stressful to have to travel, especially in a city like New York when you have a disability. So I think those are all really incredibly important factors to take into consideration. (J: right). And I feel like we have an incredibly empathetic, sensitive and kind staff.
Janet: But I think you’re absolutely right. I think it’s, you can have all the bells and whistles, you can have like the most beautiful, (Y: Right). most perfect bathroom, that’s not being used for storage or whatever else it was, (Y: laughs), you know, whatever I’ll say to, to use it for, but you have to also train the staff in order to have them understand, even just like the nuances. So you can literally kind of get to the meat and potatoes of your business, (Y: right), which is serving food, which is then creating like an ambiance that they are going to want to come back to.
So I think that that’s an important part, (Y: Right) but you also, I thought it was interesting, so you had mentioned already the lower, like the bar heights and stuff like that. I’ve seen that only once before in California. (Y: yeah, ha-ha) And I took a few pictures like selfies with it. So it was, I was a little surprised on how progressive it was. And of course, it didn’t matter, because that was the other part, like it was at the back of the bar. And so you still, this is pre-pandemic, so you still had to walk through (Y: right) or, you know, or get through like a throng of individuals to get to that part. (Y: sure). But I also noticed like, you put that in the front of the building too. So were some of those things like considerations or (Y: yeah) or yeah, do you want to walk us through some of those?
Yannick: Yeah, yeah. I would say that, if you come to the restaurant, that’s pretty much the, the centerpiece. So, the first thing you come in you see the lower counter seating of the actual bar itself. And it’s not just two seats. Like most people do that, but it’s sort of in the back and kind of like what you were talking about using a wheelchair accessible or ADA bathrooms as storage, a lot of times they use that part of the bar as storage or as a service bar, which they should not. In our case, it’s a main focal piece and there’s six seats there, devoted to that. So that’s really important.
So I think already, when you come to the restaurant, there’s something genuine and very warm about it. I also think it takes away that barrier, right? It’s like when you go to a bar and you sit at the bar, that bars’ height, the bartender is kind of behind, so there’s that lack of intimacy. When you get rid of that, now, you’re, now you’re, kind of face-to-face, there’s less intrusion there. And I think that’s what makes our bar quite special.
And I I’m hoping that, and that’s a dream of mine certainly, this is not to be known as the only place that has a bar like that. I certainly hope many, many people copy that and it can do the same thing too. This is not about me creating a copyright on it, instead it’s like, by all means, copy away.
Janet: Right. Yeah. Well, just so we’re clear, Carolyn and I have talked about, we are going to come visit you at some point (Y: oh please, that would be lovely), and it’s not just from your spectacular wine collection for which I’ve heard (Y: ha-ha) is also amazing.
But it is interesting. And, you know, even, I’m an average height, female. So, but sometimes even getting on those bar stools, like with a little bit of a high heel or whatever, this is just, (Y: yeah) you know, what considered an able-bodied person (Y: yeah) it’s still a little difficult.
I don’t know why the bar heights ended up getting so high. (Y: laughs) It was a design thing at some point, and there, there is something kind of interesting about that and I think you’re right when you lower that, like you’re literally lowering the bar (Y: right, laughs). And I wonder if that’s because like, otherwise you just kind of, sort of like would zoom, right, you’d kind of only see yourself from sort of like your shoulders on up for the most part. Whereas if you’re maybe just a little bit lower than you see more of the person, and I wonder if that has something to do with it as well, like the way you created the intimacy that you were talking about.
Yannick: I think what it does is that it puts everyone at an even playing field. And what I mean by that is that, for example, you and I, Janet, we can go to Contento, and let’s say, we were like, ‘Hey, let’s just go sit at the bar because we like the bar’. But as opposed to like me looking up at you, cause you’re, you’re sitting on that high stool. And I’m looking at you kind of upwards (J: right) at you and you’re looking downwards at me— now we can both sit down together, eye to eye at the bar. And I think that that’s something that’s really important, you know, I, that sense of belonging and that sense of feeling like everybody else is incredibly important.
And so a lot of people that come to the restaurant that have a disability actually want to eat and sit at the bar because they very rarely ever have a chance to get to experience that. Right? (J: right) And so they can go with their date. They can go with their wife, husband, best friend, whatever it is, and just sit there all night and have a good time, as they should.
Janet: As they, well they should. Yeah. No, that’s, that’s, that’s really terrific. So what, I know that you did, so you did the bar, you’ve done the bathroom. (Y: yeah) is there… you know, I know that you talked about being very inclusive in terms of, even like the utensils, like you were thoughtful about the utensils. (Y: yeah). So talk about some of the more, like, the pinpointing some of those, like really important other factors that you had thought extensively about and implemented in Contento.
Yannick: Well, I will say this, even though I myself have a disability, I think it’s important to understand that no disabilities are alike. And what I mean is, because you might see myself and someone else in a wheelchair, we might have two totally different needs. And even though in the census, they categorize everyone with, you know, whether it’s, if you’re an amputee or blind, under one group of having a disability and there’s 61-million Americans that have a disability by the way. (J: right). We’re all incredibly different, right? And so I would be remiss to say to you, like, of course, like, it’s always a learning process for myself.
I myself have a, I had a grandfather that was blind. I have a cousin that’s blind. I have another cousin that’s a paraplegic. But even though despite all of that, I am constantly learning. I am constantly evolving. And me not evolving and me not asking questions would mean that now I’ve rested on my laurels. And then I think I know it all. I absolutely do not know it all.
So there’s all this new technology. Things are constantly changing (J: right) and because the world of disability and the recognition of people with disability being independent is still kind of new, there’s a lot of new terminologies that are still being kind of implemented. (J: right). But you are correct that we have a menu in braille. We’ve done everything possible with our website to make it accessible for the low vision and blind community. We have adaptive flatware for people who have minimal dexterity with their hands and upper body. And, if you don’t know what that is, you can just Google ‘adaptive flatware’ and it, and it’s a company called ‘Dining with Dignity’. They’re absolutely fabulous. And not only that, but the silverware itself, the adaptive flatware, looks good. It doesn’t look like it came from the hospital. (J: right)
For the bathroom itself, everything that we have there is touch-less. The soap dispenser is touch-less. The paper dispenser is touch-less. So things of that nature. Are we perfect? Certainly not, but we’ve put everything, we put our heart and soul into it. And most importantly, we are all ears. So if someone else that has a disability notices something that we are, we’re missing, or it’s something that can be done, we are on it. Please, tell us, we love it.
So listen, I’m an incrementalist, and, you know, Rome is not Rome because it was built overnight. Rome is Rome because it was built over 2000 years. Right. (J: laugh). So it’s a compounding effect, and I think that, you know, you come back next year to Contento and it will be that much better. And that’s just how life is, generally speaking, you are supposed to get better. And our objective is to do better than the day before.
Janet: So I did read in that New York times article, and I saw it on Lydia’s show, and we haven’t talked about it, is your Sommelier box that you designed for yourself. (Y: yes). Can you talk a little bit about that? (Y: absolutely). I love the ingenuity with that as well. And it just made me like, as soon as I started, I was like, well, of course, like, and I thought to myself, why doesn’t everybody have that? That’s the other part.
Yannick: I mean, I think, that adaptive tray that you see me using, is something from trial and error. I mean, it started off as very basic, in order for something to kind of reach that level of greatness or perfection, you have to go through a lot of steps, you kind of, (J: iterations), yeah, a lot of, exactly. And so that’s, that was the case.
I was very lucky again and blessed to have met this gentleman. His name is Jean Paul Viollet, who’s a very good friend of mine, who’s a master carpenter out in Brooklyn. And we had started talking and I said, I really would love to like, create something. And we just kind of went back and forth, again, trial and error. And not only did he create this really practical and mindful tray, but he made it look so beautiful and it is beautiful and it’s sturdy and it’s going to last forever. And I’m so, I really owe him so much.
Janet: Maybe we could get a picture of it (Y: yeah) on the website, you know, it might be actually kind of great. And obviously we’ll give your, (Y: yeah, thank you), your friend a shout out as well. (Y: yes). And all of this stuff you can find on InclusiveDesigners.com …
Let’s talk about going into the kitchen. What were the things that you put into your kitchen to allow for your accessibility, for Georges’ accessibility? When you were on the TV show with Lydia, (Y: yeah). She even said something like, ‘boy, your kitchen small’ (Y: ha-ha). And so, I mean, obviously you had to work with the space you had, (Y: right) but getting around, I think, was probably your main driver there, but was there anything that you learned from that experience? Was there anything that you had, had a takeaway. And then I guess it kind of goes into the would’ve, could’ve and should’ve, categories, (Y: yeah) like, is there anything that you would have, or could have, or should have done with the spaces? Maybe we could start with the kitchen.
Yannick: Listen, again, space was incredibly challenging. And what we did was we prioritized the dining room, making sure that it was as accessible and spacious as possible because that’s where people are going to eat, that’s where the patrons are, (J: right), and that’s where I was going to be at all the time. So the kitchen, it’s not to say that it was an afterthought. I myself could get into the kitchen. I could cook things if I wanted to, but during service, it would be very challenging because space is very limited. So our priority was making sure that the bar and the main dining room was accessible.
Of course, if we ever decide to open up another place or move to another space, it will be significantly bigger. Hopefully. And because of that, we would be able to create a kitchen that is really accessible and hopefully have someone that has a disability have the opportunity to come in and work safely and work comfortably in the kitchen itself. But that, that’s still a dream and that’s still an objective for the future itself. There is no doubt about it.
Janet: Right. Well, it may be, you know, but at the end of the day, yes, you have a small space, (Y: exactly) but you have a space that is accessible. So it’s, it’s still living the dream. Right? (Y: ha-ha, still living the dream). But it’s getting there. (Y: yeah). Yeah, (laughs). So, I think my next question for you is, what would you like designers to know in starting to work on their own ‘inclusive spaces’ projects, in particular, obviously restaurants? Like what was your big takeaway from doing this? (Y: yeah). Was there anything that you’ve found surprising?
Yannick: Oh there’s, the moment you tear off, like tear off the walls, (J: oh, this is true, right), you find a lot of things, (J: there’s a surprise), yeah, surprise, surprise. I mean, well I think the most important thing, obviously there’s something called, as you guys know, the American Disabilities Act and there’s all these federal guidelines that are incredibly detailed, and well done, about how doors should be, how wide they should be, and all the specs and being able to do a 360. There’s even, how thick the carpet should be as well. If you’re going to install carpet in a business, which is pretty amazing.
But I think the biggest mistake that architects or designers or business owners do is, yes, obviously there’s the point person who has a craft in that particular, profession. They, they’ve worked hard on that. They’ve perfected their craft is what I should be saying.
However, I think if you really want to make it accessible, you should ask people in the community, do some research, (J: right) go on social media. (J: yeah) Go on the internet. There are plenty of people with disabilities, even if you’re not too familiar with the community, that you can find out, reach over the aisle and ask them for their opinions and their thoughts. Because then it just becomes very sterile by just going by those guidelines. You know, instead of just putting like generic grab bars, maybe put some really nice grab bars, right? (J: right). Make it look like it’s part of the aesthetics of the restaurant. So anyway, I think that really going and making that effort and reaching out to the community and asking their thoughts is very beneficial and very educational.
Janet: Absolutely. You kind of touched on that a little bit in the beginning too. We, you know, we also, at least from my perspective, we look at a lot of evidence-based design pieces in order to design. But it sounds to me like you really thought a lot about this. I mean, you come at it from a personal experience, but you also, you know, you really had some real good thoughts about other people who, you could have just been focused on yourself and what worked for you, but it was actually, you were looking at other people with other types of disabilities (Y: yeah), and such. So, I mean, it was well thought out.
Yannick: Thank you. Thank you. (J: laugh) I mean, I think the most important thing is, is that I had an opportunity to create a restaurant built around my needs and being able to provide the service, the comfort, and sharing my passion with people without any true obstruction. But also being able to serve other people with disabilities that felt comfortable being there and that I can make them feel comfortable. So, it was a two-way street and it’s just a real joy and it’s really wonderful and I’m just absolutely blessed and very lucky to have this opportunity to be able to do so because there’s not too many people who can say that.
Janet: Right. And I love some of the taglines that you put with the restaurant… it’s ‘Roots, Respect, Restore’. I think you kind of covered it a lot (Y: laugh) in, in the conversation, you know, you talked about your roots, (Y: yeah) and the roots of even where the building is, right. (Y: right) So there’s that, and then the respect you’re giving all the individual people (Y: exactly) and then maybe talk a little bit more about restore or is that just natural with (Y: no) the restaurant that you can kind of go sit at and have a nice time?
Yannick: No, no. Well, the word restore, I mean the word restaurant, excuse me, the etymology means restoration. And what the original concept of the restaurant was, it was a way for people, they would do these long journeys on their horses and on your way to wherever you were going, to whatever your destination, there was a stopover. And you would stop there, and you were offered a nice warm bowl of consommé, and you were there to get, to restore yourself.
And I think more so than ever, especially with what’s happened these last few years— really incredibly challenging times— I think the most important thing is you come into a place to restore yourself and to forget about any problems that you may have at that current moment. (J: hmm). It’s a place to make yourself feel good, to kind of make yourself feel rejuvenated. And I think, that’s the purpose of food, right? I mean, food is satisfying, food nourishes you (J: nourishes, right) and you feel revitalized. And I think that’s the concept of Contento. So you, maybe you came in not feeling so happy, (J: laughs) but you leave feeling very happy.
Janet: Well, I can’t wait to come in and, I’ll be happy going there and also happy while I’m there. And, and I will, I’m sure. Happy… well, it’s not going to come out right. Happy to leave, but you know what I mean? (Y: laughs) having had the experience. (Y: leave happier, leave happier). Leave happier, yes, exactly. (Y: exactly). So then also, why don’t you tell us a little bit about, the type of restaurant it is, what kind of food you guys serve? And I’ve heard a rumor. I might’ve already mentioned it once, but I think it’s worth repeating, (Y: laugh) is that you have an incredible wine selection.
Yannick: Well, thank you so much for your kind words. The restaurant, I mean, the food at the restaurant is Peruvian based. The chef, his name is Oscar Lorenzzi. He is born and raised in Lima, Peru, but he is French classically trained. So a lot of his techniques are French inspired. But he’s also inspired very much by the cuisine of the Mediterranean. So you’ll see a little bit of that also in the cuisine, but it is very much Peruvian and I absolutely love it. The food’s delicious, it’s incredibly accessible and approachable. And the price points are very reasonable. It’s fun. It’s eclectic. And it’s just delicious.
As far as our beverage program goes, we have an extensive, cocktail program that’s also quite unique. And then the wine list is quite extensive. We do have a very, what I would call a geeky wine list. (J: laughs) Wines from all around the world. We have wines from Armenia, from the country of Georgia, Lebanon, Israel, Morocco. So you’re really kind of getting a little tour of, of different wines from around the world. We also have wines from lots of interesting places across the United States. We even have a blueberry sparkling wine from the state of Maine (J: huh), called ‘Bluet’. And the price points for the wine itself are also incredibly reasonable because I know that a lot of times we go to restaurants and there’s only wines that start off at a hundred plus, certainly not the case at ‘Contento’.
Janet: I think that that’s fabulous. I think we’ve gotten, you know, gotten a really good understanding of not only the restaurant and its, its history and the design challenges that you had. Plus also the design solutions that you’ve come up with. (Y: yeah). So would you like to talk about, ‘Wheeling Forward’, you want to talk to us a little bit about that? How did you start ‘Wheeling Forward’? And then, is the Wine on Wheels sort of like just an offshoot of that, or…
Yannick: It is an offshoot of that. Thank you for your question. ‘Wheeling Forward’ was started in 2012. It was created alongside, my good friend, Alex Elegudin, who he himself is a quadriplegic. I met him while I was in rehab. And we befriended each other and we just, we were somewhat dumbfounded that these other individuals that we also became friends with had issues going back home because they simply didn’t have the financial resources to make small home modifications that go a long way. Or some of them lived in a five-story apartment, things of that nature. So we knew that one day that we would create an organization to help these individuals. Individuals that have a disability, individuals from lower income backgrounds and also people perhaps who don’t have the love, care and support needed to overcome this life altering situation.
And so that’s how ‘Wheeling Forward’ was created. It was really to help those from lower income backgrounds improve their quality of life. And the way we would generate revenue to support ourselves and to help us, you know, accomplish our objectives and goals was to have an event called ‘Wine on Wheels’. And ‘Wine on Wheels’ was set up every year. It was over 200 wines. Wine professionals from all around the world would come in and pour those wines. And that’s how we would generate all this money and help get people used wheelchairs and whatever it is, help them with scholarship money for, to go back to school.
And ‘Wine on Wheels’ kind of took on its own, you know, kind of personality. And that’ll have more of a focus on food, wine, and in training for people with disabilities that have expressed an interest and a curiosity to want to get into the hospitality industry. And then the other thing that we will be doing is reaching out to other hospitality establishments— restaurants, bars, hotels— and helping them train their staff on better systems on how to deal with people with disabilities and how to encourage more people with disabilities to work at their establishment, but also to come to their establishment to eat and dine and drink and whatever you want.
Janet: That’s great. I love that. I think that that’s a really, kind of wonderful (Y: thank you), way to kind of bring everything together and we kind of talked about it earlier, you were trying to explain to me that it’s not just, you got to train the right people, right. (Y: yeah) So you got to put everything together.
Yannick: And I always had a dream that I really wanted to have a stronger presence in the hospitality industry where I would see more people with disabilities of all kinds, work. But in order to make that happen, there needed to be that bridge. And I’m hoping that ‘Wine on Wheels’ can finally be that bridge. Not just a New York thing, but a United States thing. And then let it grow across the world. And that’s really my long-term vision. But you know, ‘Wheeling Forward’ is still something that I love and I dream about and will still be supporting and still being involved definitely, but, you know, a lot of my time and energy going forward will be with ‘Wine on Wheels.
Janet: Well, let me know how I can help. (Y: thank you). I do want to let our listeners know how to get in touch. I mean, I will also have it on our website. We will have all the links that you’ll ever need and then some, (Y: ha-ha) but do you want to do a verbal shout out right now?
Yannick: Yeah. I mean, one: I want to thank you for having me. What a pleasure, what an honor to be on this. But if you want to learn more about ‘Wine on Wheels, you can go on wineonwheels.org. If you want to learn more about ‘Contento’, you can go on contentonyc.com. As for me, you can find me on Instagram @YannickBenjamin. And you can also find ‘Wine on Wheels’ there too: @wineonwheelsNYC; and then also @ContentoNYC as well, all on Instagram. and I look forward to, to seeing all of you and it would be great to have you all come down to ‘Contento’ and have a great time.
Janet: Yannick, we can’t wait I’m telling you. Carolyn and I talk about that often. (Y: ha ha) So, we’ve got to get over a couple of things obviously. But anyways, we really appreciate you taking the time today. (Y: thank you). We’re kind of finished here unless there is something that you felt like we didn’t cover, that designers might want to know?
Yannick: No, this was a wonderful conversation and it went by so fast and I thank you very much for all your great questions.
Janet: And all of this stuff you can find on InclusiveDesigners.com – I love the, your philosophy and I love the forward thinking and, the heart behind it, which is kind of great. I mean, think about it, I mean, like if you could actually create some of those spaces that also help people because so many times when people have some sort of disability, they’re also impoverished, so (Y: yeah, yeah, that’s a problem), it’s a problem. So and then to create more skills and then like you said, Rome, wasn’t built in a day, (Y: laughs) but I feel like we shouldn’t be a little bit further along, but…
Yannick: Yeah, we’re definitely behind, for sure.
Janet: We’re definitely behind, but people like you are making a difference.
Yannick: Thank you for everything. Thank you, Janet. Thank you, Carolyn, for this opportunity.
Janet: Thank you so much for being here and being on our podcast, Inclusive Designers.
(Music / Show Outro)
Janet: I really love the concept of Roots, Respect, and Restore. That is going to be my new mantra, Carolyn.
Carolyn: That’s right after ‘Stay Well and Stay Well Informed’ of course.
Janet: Well, Yannick thought of everything when creating this restaurant, not only just the physical space, like lowering the bar counters and having things being barrier-free, but such key touches like the adaptive utensils and the menus for the visually impaired.
Carolyn: He said they really appreciate what it takes for someone living with a disability to get to a restaurant, and they strive to ensure every patron can relax and enjoy it while they are there.
Janet: What a wonderful guy! I can’t wait to go down to New York and visit him, taste some of that good food, sample some of those nice wines that he mentioned, and of course, see the space in person!
Carolyn: I think we seriously need a road trip… but if you are in NYC please look up ‘Contento’ in East Harlem and visit for both the food, and to check out a good example of a restaurant designed with the ADA in mind! For now, we will post photos to inspire you on our website.
Janet: And we will also share the links for Yannick, Contento, Wheeling Forward, Wine on Wheels and of course, a few other things that were mentioned along the way during this discussion… all that on our website at: inclusivedesigners.com…
Carolyn: That’s: inclusivedesigners.com…
Janet: Thank you to Yannick Benjamin of Contento. And thank you all as well for listening.
Carolyn: Along with all the regular places you get your podcasts, you can also find us on YouTube as, you guessed it, Inclusive Designers Podcast. And of course, if you like what you hear, feel free to go to our website and hit that Patreon button, or the link to our GoFundMe Page.
Janet: And as our motto says: ’Stay Well…and Stay Well Informed’. Thank you as always for stopping by.
Carolyn: Yes, thanks again.
Janet: We’ll see you next time.
(Music up & out.)