One of Chicago’s hottest restaurants and night club. Low sensory needs. Autism Awareness Month. You probably didn’t expect to hear these three worlds showing up in one sentence. But it is true! TAO Chicago, a hotspot in River North, is highlighting Autism awareness all month long through special menu items that give back 10% to Autism related charities and through additional sensory inclusivity training.
In partnership with KultureCity, Tao Group Hospitality has become the first global hospitality group to have sensory-inclusive restaurants. Staff members at each venue completed a training program regarding how to welcome and host guests with sensory needs. Each venue will also have sensory inclusion packs (including headphones, a weighted blanket, a visual feeling thermometer, a fidget spinner, a stress ball, and a KC VIP Lanyard) for families to borrow while dining in the venues.
And here’s the thing: while under-discussed, Chicago is one of the most forwarding cities regarding sensory inclusion. Our hospitality, travel, and entertainment industries hold themselves accountable for providing the best experience for all individuals. With Autism Awareness Month unfolding, we’ve invited Ralph Scamardella, Chief Culinary Officer & EVP, TAO Hospitality, Charles Lerner, Manager, Community Affairs & Engagement, TAO Hospitality, Uma Srivastava, Executive Director, KultureCity, and Meg Raby, KultureCity to join us for an interview to chat about the giant fortune cookie fundraiser, the inclusion bags, and Chicago’s progress on autism awareness.
Q (Urban Matter): Thank you for joining us today! Let’s start with the big WHY. Why is autism awareness a significant cause for TAO Group, and what made you partner up with Kultrue City?
R (Ralph Scamardella): I have a young son who has autism, diagnosed about 13 or 14 years ago. It was frustrating to see what he has to go through because… If someone has a physical disability: if you’re in crutches or a wheelchair, people run and come help you. But when you have mental or educational disabilities, people tend to run the other way. [It seems invisible disabilities] come with fear and trepidation. We really just wanted to help him, his school, and the community they served, which were tremendously under-served.
If an individual with sensory needs is not well-off, they don’t have access to facilities or programs that provided the support someone with autism might need. And that’s what TAO’s sensory-inclusion initiation is about. It’s a way for me to do something good and try to improve the situation, not only for those with the need but also for other participants to raise awareness: autistic individuals are just like everybody else. Some of them are quite smart, and others go through whatever problems others experience.
KultureCity steps in to help with the sensory needs. Say you’re at dinner with a family or friend with low sensory needs. KultureCity provided the packet with things that will help you adapt and lessen the burden created by the sensitivity, such as the headphones so that individuals and the people they came with can all enjoy themselves.
Q: Have you previously worked with KultureCity?
C (Charles Lerner): We’ve worked with KultureCity for a few years. Our first inclusion training with KultureCity was March 5th, 2020. Then everything was put on hold. Last year, we trained all the restaurants, and this year, we re-trained all 23 restaurants and all our cities in the US and the UK. We think sensory inclusion training is something we are already ahead of the curve with, given that we are a hospitality company. So, most of our team members already think of guest-first experience: how can we make the guest experience second to none?
Therefore, educating them on the specifics of what autism is, what sensory issues are, and how to adapt to those needs. It is very simple training. And we also want to lead the way with all the restaurant-specific requirements and allow people to enjoy themselves. This was brought into the company by Chef Ralph before I joined, and it shared with people that not everybody has the same path to get to where they are, but hospitality is a very inclusive and diverse field overall. We have a work-study program where we have autistic students who work in restaurants. This helps educate people who lack awareness and understanding of autism.
Q: That definitely sounds like you’re leading the wave. So, how is our city doing regarding autism awareness and sensory inclusion in general? Would you say Chicago is doing a good job on the matter?
S (Uma Srivastava): Chicago is one of the cities we use as an example when discussing what cities have successfully done. Nashville, Detroit, New York, and Chicago are all part of that conversation. If you’re local to Chicago, in the surrounding area, or visiting Chicago as it’s an international spot, whether you’re going to a Bull’s or Blackhawk game, both our baseball teams, Lincoln Park Zoo, or fine dining experience at TAO… All these places are inclusive. So a family with sensory needs, whether it’s autism or other conditions, can truly have that inclusive experience without worrying about what events they can pick during their time in Chicago with their family: Am I going to opt out of dinner because it’s gonna be too loud? With all our amazing partnerships, we were really able to bring inclusion to everyone.
We love everything Chicago does, and we are honored to partner with so many venues and spaces in Chicago and the surrounding areas.
Q: What other venues and restaurants are you currently partnering with?
S: Oh! Get ready, because it is a long one. We are in Guaranteed Rate Field with the White Sox, Wrigley Field with the Cubs, Lincoln Park Zoo, Skydeck Chicago, TAO Chicago, and United Center. We activate downtown at the park for Lollapalooza every year, as well as Wintrest Arena, Arie Crown Theater, and NOW Arena in Hoffman Estates. They are all amazing, with consistent annual training, building out sensory rooms at the sporting venues, etc.
TAO Chicago’s April Fundraiser Event
In addition to holding themselves accountable in providing a sensory-inclusive experience, TAO is also at the forefront in advocating and fundraising for autism awareness. For the month of April, select menu items, including the Signature Giant Fortune Cookie in Blue ($18), will be available to guests all month long. TAO Chicago will donate 10% of those proceeds to Autism related charities. Other specialty menu items include Crispy Prawn Scallop Roll with Caviar ($28) and Blue Fin Tuna with Mango Shiso Ponzu ($38). A specialty cocktail will also be available. Sip and do good with the Fuji Sky, made with Maiden Sake, Montenegro Amaro, Yuzu, and Spirulina Tea Syrup ($20).
To make a reservation at TAO Chicago, visit their website or reserve directly via OpenTable.
About TAO Group Hospitality
Tao Group Hospitality delivers distinctive culinary and premium entertainment experiences through its portfolio of restaurants, nightclubs, lounges, and daylife venues. Tao Group Hospitality acquired Hakkasan Group in April 2021. The combined company operates more than 70 branded locations in over 20 markets across five continents and features a collection of widely recognized hospitality brands. These include TAO, Hakkasan, OMNIA, Marquee, LAVO, Beauty & Essex, Wet Republic, Yauatcha, Ling Ling, Cathédrale, Little Sister, The Highlight Room, Sake No Hana, Jewel, and more. Tao Group Hospitality is part of Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp. (MSG Entertainment) (NYSE: MSGE), a leader in live experiences.
KultureCity is a leading non-profit recognized nationwide for using its resources to revolutionize and effect change in the community for those with sensory needs, not just those with autism. Since the program’s inception, KultureCity has created over 1,000 sensory-inclusive venues in 6 countries: this includes special events such as the NFL Pro-Bowl, NFL Super Bowl, MLB World Series, and MLB All Star Weekend. KultureCity has won many awards for its efforts, including the NASCAR Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award in 2017 and the 2018 Clio Sports Silver for social good in partnership with Cleveland Cavaliers/Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Quiet Space Sensory Room at Quicken Loans Arena was a finalist for the 2018 Stadium Business Award, KultureCity was named one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for 2019 and 2020 by FastCompany and recently won the Industry Partner Award in TheStadiumBusiness Design & Development Awards 2019.
Featured Image: Warren Jagger/TAO Chicago