by Kyle Garmes
In raising a son with Down syndrome, Holly Simon has become a passionate advocate for him and other people with special needs.
Recently, the Beverly resident overheard four employees at a fast-food restaurant in Mt. Greenwood use the “R” word and other offensive language, and she demanded that restaurant management apologize and make amends.
That request was honored when the Burger King, 11020 S. Kedzie Ave., provided dozens of free lunches to students in the special-education cluster at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS)—where Simon’s son, Nate, is a student—on Nov. 27.
Simon witnessed the employees’ hurtful behavior on Oct. 29 when she and Nate went to lunch with his friend, Brian Martin, who also has special needs.
Upon hearing their remarks, Simon admonished the employees, then followed up with phone calls to Burger King as well as posts on social media.
Simon said the response from Burger King officials made her feel better.
“They couldn’t have been kinder,” Simon said. “They followed up. I said, ‘I promise to give you as much good PR as I did bad.’”
When the incident occurred, Simon, who runs the non-profit organization “I Am Who I Am” in support of people with special needs, was keeping Nate and Brian busy while school was out during the Chicago Teachers Union strike.
As Simon waited in line, she said, the employees acted inappropriately. More than one of them used an offensive female slur, and one used the “R” word.
Simon was offended.
“I just said, ‘Excuse me, did I really hear what you just said correctly?’” Simon recalled. “She looked at me like a deer in the headlights. … She just looked at me and [apologized].”
Simon asked to speak to a supervisor, who apologized but said that, due to not hearing the foul language, there wasn’t much more that could be done.
The response frustrated Simon.
“I said, ‘I won’t allow this in my neighborhood,’” she said. “This is my neighborhood. And, it’s Nate’s neighborhood, and it’s Brian’s. I was so disheartened by the [employee’s] response. … I literally didn’t know what else to do other than leave.”
Simon said the situation embarrassed the teens, and Nate started to cry. She assured them they had done nothing wrong, and when they were later warmly received at another fast-food restaurant, she said, they witnessed the manner in which everyone should be treated.
Simon also took to social media that day to share her experience, including writing a Twitter post directed at Burger King. She received a response on Twitter saying the message would be forwarded to the appropriate people, but she heard nothing more for a week.
Simon could have given up her effort, but she felt more needed to be done to achieve progress for people like Nate and his friend.
“We always go two steps forward, 10 steps back,” Simon said. “I can’t let it go.”
She posted on Twitter again, and Bill Peterson, the manager at the Burger King in Mt. Greenwood, called her—a previous phone number he had received for Simon was incorrect, he said.
Simon suggested empathy training for staff and even terminating the employees. Peterson said their actions were documented, and they were informed that if they acted in such a manner again, they would be fired.
Simon said Peterson was “very apologetic.” He said he was on a conference call in the restaurant office when the incident occurred, and he wished that he would have been notified immediately.
Simon also suggested that Burger King buy lunch for the students in the CHSAS special-education cluster, and Peterson agreed. He delivered 80 orders of chicken nuggets, 80 orders of fries and 80 paper crowns that the restaurant distributes to customers.
Peterson, of suburban Woodridge, brought coolers to work to transport the food with a co-worker. He said he has a son with special needs, so he empathizes with Simon.
“I understand where people are coming from,” Peterson said. “My employees should never say anything like that, never.”
Simon received a photo of Nate, who turned 17 on Nov. 26, at CHSAS enjoying his Burger King lunch and wearing a paper crown.
She also said that an employee from Burger King’s corporate office called her and was “so apologetic” and said, “Our company doesn’t stand for this.”
Simon said she doesn’t want “four bad apples to ruin a business,” but she does feel four people “have a ripple effect.”
She said she received strong support from neighborhood mothers on a local Facebook page.
Burger King, she said, is back in her good graces.
“They did a beautiful job.”