New program puts Braille menus in East Sacramento restaurants

The entire Three Sisters menu is transcribed in more than 21 pages of Braille, including appetizers, the kids’ menu, drinks and more.
The entire Three Sisters menu is transcribed in more than 21 pages of Braille, including appetizers, the kids’ menu, drinks and more.

An improved way of dining is now at the fingertips of restaurant customers with vision challenges. Braille menus have become a fixture in several East Sacramento eateries, with plans to expand their availability to a wider swath of the city.

The initiative was launched in early 2016 by Sacramento Councilman Jeff Harris, who represents East Sacramento and South Natomas. He was inspired to help provide Braille menus after attending an Americans with Disabilities Act fair and talking to a man who suggested that restaurants could do more to assist blind people, especially since having a server read a lengthy menu can be laborious for customers and staff members alike.

Harris has spent more than $400 in district funds to provide Braille menus for eight restaurants in his district: Three Sisters, Nopalitos Southwest Cafe, Formoli’s Bistro, Hoppy Brewing Co., 33rd Street Bistro, Cafe Capricho, Giovanni’s Old World New York Pizzeria and the now-relocated Les Baux. He expects two more restaurants to join the list soon.

Harris said he started the program by recruiting eateries he felt were among the most popular in his district.

“We’re giving attention to an underserved community for a very simple need,” he said. “It’s an absolutely minimal investment, it works well and the response from non-sighted people has been terrific.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t require restaurants to provide Braille menus to customers. Some national chain restaurants, including Olive Garden and Applebee’s, offer Braille versions of their menu, but they are not found at most eateries. Some local exceptions can be found in the Selland Family Restaurants group, which offers Braille menus at its Selland’s Market-Cafe locations in East Sacramento and El Dorado Hills. A Braille menu also will be coming to its newly opened OBO’ Italian Table & Bar. Strings Urban Kitchen, a downtown restaurant in the Capitol Towers, has offered a Braille menu since opening in 2014.

Producing Braille menus can be a costly endeavor. Harris said he was initially quoted a price of $350 per menu by a commercial transcriber as he prepared to launch the program. But through volunteer-run Sacramento Braille Transcribers Inc., which operates out of the Sierra 2 Center in Curtis Park, Harris was able to purchase menus for about $50 each.

For volunteers such as Elaine Betschart at Sacramento Braille Transcribers Inc., creating a Braille menu takes a minimum of two weeks. The work entails transcribing food and drink items into a patterns of dots that denote letters of the alphabet, numbers and more. The Braille characters are proofread for accuracy and then turned into a series of raised dots via heat compression on embossed paper.

Menu items can change fairly frequently at restaurants that emphasize seasonal ingredients. Once a Braille menu is created, that information is kept on a computer so changes can be made without having to start the entire process from scratch.

“We do it because we enjoy doing it,” Betschart said. “Restaurants probably don’t know this service is available, but since Councilman Harris has gotten on this, we’ve been making quite a few recently.”

At Three Sisters restaurant at 51st Street and Folsom Boulevard, the final product arrives at the table as a 21-page document. The restaurant’s entire menu has been transcribed into Braille. It includes a table of contents, a section of the menu for kids, and all food and drink items.

Co-owner Dora Saenz said the Three Sisters Braille menu has been used only a handful of times since it was delivered about four months ago, but it’s been welcomed by customers. Before the restaurant had its own Braille menu, visually impaired customers were prone to simply ordering conventional items or just sticking to their favorite Mexican foods, she said.

“Now they’re ordering from the whole menu,” Saenz said. “They’re getting a little appetizer, a dinner item, margaritas, even dessert. They can explore more. It’s like they were looking through a small window and now it’s a plasma TV. We’re happy to provide it for them, and they deserve it.”

Harris ultimately seeks to have Braille menus become a staple of restaurants in his district, and beyond.

“Step by step, we’re trying to cover every restaurant in District 3,” Harris said. “We’re reveling in our restaurants and we want them open and accessible. As long as I’m elected, I’ll keep pushing for it.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias