Steak ‘n Shake — Filing a Complaint for Discrimination

It was bound to happen. 
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Back in January, my son and I had the drive thru window closed in our face, not once, but twice by a head trainer/manager of Steak ‘n Shake in Bolingbrook.  “Go around and use the speaker,” I was told. Numerous attempts to explain that I was deaf did not sway him.  Showing my hearing aids didn’t convince him to serve me.  He stated that he could call the cops if I continued to remain in the drive thru.
Many people told me to “sue the pants off of Steak ‘n Shake!” 
I wanted something more.  I wanted to work with the corporation to try and affect some positive changes. I didn’t want to pursue a lawsuit.  I wanted to make it so that when my kids go through a Steak ‘n Shake drive-thru, they’d be able to access it in any of their 400+ restaurants.
A meeting was set up with three Steak ‘n Shake employees: the Director of Communications, Director of Human Resources and Director of Operations.  Howard Rosenblum, a deaf attorney from Equip for Equality and a person who was very familiar with the drive thru issues, joined us at the meeting.  He was there to represent me and make sure that all of the bases were covered in protecting my rights.
At first, the possibility of change seemed quite possible.  The three corporate staff persons were interested in making positive changes so that this would not happen to another deaf, hard of hearing or speech-challenged person in their drive-thrus.  They indicated that they were not the right department to implement the changes and that we would have to meet with other staff who could put changes in place.  So we left the meeting feeling positive about the direction that Steak ‘n Shake was going in.
The issue was handed over to Greg Fehribach, an attorney who works for Steak ‘n Shake.  We stressed to Mr. Fehribach that we wanted to meet with the corporate employees who had the authority to make changes in the drive thru.
On Monday, Howard and I met with Mr. Fehribach and another Steak ‘n Shake attorney.  Despite my request to meet near my home, Mr. Fehribach insisted on having the meeting in downtown Chicago.  Right then and there, I could see that Steak ‘n Shake wasn’t planning to make this process any easier on me.
At first, our meeting went well as we explained the changes that we hoped to see at Steak ‘n Shake.  After the incident in January, I did a lot of research about drive-thrus and experienced several different access options.  A Subway in Indiana had a touch-screen menu so I was able to experience what it would be like to use a touch-screen.  I visited the Culver’s restaurants that had the Order Assist system in place.  I met with the owner of Order Assist and suggested some modifications to the system to make it more accessible.
Imagine the wonderful PR that would result from making a positive change to all of the restaurants and making the drive-thrus accessible, I said.
We quickly learned that the attorneys for Steak ‘n Shake had no interest in pursuing any changes to the Steak ‘n Shake drive-thrus that would require a physical change to the system.  They believed that training their employees and providing pre-printed menus would be enough.  Neither attorney had even made an attempt to explore the systems that were in use.  They were not going to bring about a meeting with the corporate executives who could implement those changes.  It was pretty apparent that they wanted me to settle it, not blog about it anymore and make it all go away.  
The attorneys brought in the head trainer/manager who discriminated against me.  He stiffly issued a canned apology and then left the room.  The attorneys would not allow me to say a word or ask questions.   After the apology, I got up and left the room.  All the emotions of that January day came flooding back– to be denied service because you are deaf in this day and age means that we have so much more work ahead of us to obtain equal access.
So I’ll be joining Karen Tumeh in filing a complaint against a corporation for discrimination in the drive-thru.  For the last six months, I explored this issue and tried to affect some positive changes in drive-thru access. I really hoped that Steak ‘n Shake was going to be a leader in this.
It’s just a shame that the corporations don’t want our business.
45 replies
  1. Kari-Lyn
    Kari-Lyn says:

    I am appalled at the treatment you have received at the hands of Steak N Shake!! It is amazing the stupidity of people! That ‘manager’ was just the beginning of the ignorance that obviously abounds at this corporation! I don’t see how you could lose any suit you bring forth, but I am sure they will want to settle to keep it out of court. Stand your ground and know that there are legions behind you, even those of us with great hearing.

  2. Karen Mayes
    Karen Mayes says:

    Keep us posted on how the complaint goes…

    :o( Shame that Steak ‘N Shake did not take you seriously.

  3. Steve Baier
    Steve Baier says:

    As much as they are violating the federal laws of treating the disabled community with respect including the ADA laws, I suggest a that you file a FEDERAL COMPLAINT with the Dept of Justice and tell them everything what happened. You need to have a civil rights lawsuit on them because your rights were definately violated. It’s too bad that they didn’t settled on this. Now it’s time to bring JUSTICE in.

    Steve Baiers last blog post..Personal Post day.

  4. Don Grushkin
    Don Grushkin says:

    I’ve had the same experience happen to me. One time one of my kids fell asleep in the back seat of my car. I pulled in to McDs to get some lunch or something. Since I can’t use the speaker (I can speak, but I can’t hear or understand what they’re saying through the speaker so I end up staying for 5 minutes past the order time because I don’t know if they completed the order or not) and went straight to the window. The guy told me to go in. If I’d went in, I would have woken up my kid, who was a very light sleeper. So I indicated that he was in back and I didn’t want to go in. Still refused. So I left and boycotted them. If Hearing people have the option to stay in their car for whatever reason, we Deaf should too! But most of the time, most McDs will let you drive up and submit your order in writing. I do keep a pad of paper and pens in my car ready for things like that, to save them a bit of time instead of waiting for me to write it down.

    Don Grushkins last blog post..Why don’t Deaf shun those who hurt our own?

  5. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    As much as I understand the inconvenience, I believe that making changes to the way employees and managers are trained is a step in the right direction. Maybe I’m ignorant on this subject, but to expect each corporation to immediately change the way they do business to make it more convenient for deaf people sounds a bit over the top. Companies that don’t make it easier for you will simply lose your business. (and probably fail anyway) I disagree with more government intervention on businesses. It has never helped in the past and won’t help in the long-run for free people to demand government control of other free peoples’ businesses. Thanks for hearing my opinion.

  6. dog food
    dog food says:

    Go for it, Karen. In my experience with corporations, its all about the bottom line not the quality of food they serve or the number of happy people. Ironic because if the food is good and the service is wonderful, then we come back… .and improve their bottom lines.

    I never liked chain restaurants or corporations. Why do we give them money? sue their testicles off and then spend all that money on family owned businesses 🙂

  7. Mr. Sandman
    Mr. Sandman says:

    I’ve followed your saga with Steak ‘n Shake, and I appreciate your writing to let us know what’s happening. It really is a shame that the corporate suits aren’t willing to be flexible and either change or develop a reasonable compromise. I’m also surprised (and yet not so surprised…) that they didn’t can that manager– he really should’ve been fired/demoted.

    I applaud your willingness to first pursue resolution, and I think you’re making the right decision to join this lawsuit. My best wishes as you go through the legal system, and DO keep us posted on what happens!

    Mr. Sandmans last blog post..Touching the Joystick

  8. valerie
    valerie says:

    I admire you for trying to get Steak and Shake a chance to make changes without a lawsuit. The have had enough time.

    You have my support, Go get them.

  9. Tania Karas
    Tania Karas says:

    Hi Karen,

    I think you are absolutely doing the right thing here. I have been following Tumeh’s case closely and I can’t believe the discriminatory remarks that were made in the comments on the Chicago Tribune article:

    I was close to tears reading these. Hearing people who have never been in this situation (and therefore aren’t really entitled to criticize, in my opinion) just don’t get it! Both Steak n’ Shake and McDonald’s and all other places with drive-thrus need to better accommodate the disabled.

    Karen, I applaud you for your patience in dealing with this and the amount of time and research you put into this. One day those ignorant people will see the light. Until then, I support you 100%!

  10. Meryl K. Evans
    Meryl K. Evans says:

    Excuse me, did the ’50s call and ask for their discrimination back? Sure sounds like I am reading something from years ago except we didn’t have speakers and computerized monitors back then. Instead, people drove up to the window or walked in and ordered in person.

    I can think of a couple of solutions that wouldn’t take much money and effort to implement compared to say… introducing a new menu item. It’d be nice if we had touch screens as an option for submitting orders.

    Meryl K. Evanss last blog post..Links: 2008-07-18

  11. jodi
    jodi says:

    We have all been following your responsible pro-active behavior and cheering you on…Apparently you need to be a bitch from hell and sue to get any respect in this world…so – just give them what they’re apparently asking for and let me know if I can do anything to help from all the way over here.
    If there is anything I can’t stand, it’s being dismissed…and having to drive distances just to experience that feeling.
    Go get THEM, so that people like my son can benefit. Hugs, Jodi

  12. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    You have handled the situation with dignity and grace, and it sounds like you have gone out of your way to work out a solution. If Steak ‘n Shake is unwilling to be a leader, then another corporation will take the lead when they realize how important the issue is. Good luck!

    Sharons last blog post..In Four Days

  13. Kari-Lyn
    Kari-Lyn says:

    I just remembered that I wanted to mention, I hope you contact the news media again. I think this should be brought to the attention of as many citizens as possible! I would even consider contacting the big news networks like CNN and Fox, etc. Either way, keep us posted and stay strong!!

  14. Lotta
    Lotta says:

    How insanely frustrating! Hey I just found you via Twitter. I’m in the chicagoland area and also hard of hearing. Email me if you ever want to chat. tsvobo1526 (at)

    Lottas last blog post..Blogher08: Recovery

  15. Unforgiven
    Unforgiven says:

    I respect your attempt to do this the right way, avoiding the legal system if possible. I am amazed at how simple this problem could be solved with reasonable accomodations by properly training employees. If they have a window, there’s no reason you should not be able to give your order to the cashier. It should also be possible at little cost to install some method for the hearing impaired and deaf, to notify the store of their need to order face to face. I do understand companies not spending great sums of money in complete overhauls of their current situation. Even a setup such as Sonic has, could be remedied w/the simple expedient of the customer punching the button twice, and an employee coming out to take the order, it’s just an issue of education and a sign saying “push button twice if you need to order face to face.” But I have to say, I wouldn’t be dealing w/Steak and Shake anymore. Sounds like you gave them a fair chance to act intelligently and humanely.

  16. Abbie
    Abbie says:

    Karen, It is a shame that a company is not willing to make adjustments to better serve our needs. You two will be making a point that a simple accomodation will help the millions that suffer with hearing loss. I’m behind you 110%

  17. Beth
    Beth says:

    That manager broke the law by discriminating against you plain and simple…he had every opportunity to make the outcome of the situation different. The corporation had the opportunity to do so as well…..instead they throw their lawyers at you? What a corporation Steak and Shake is, it’s obvious they don’t care about their customers needs! The media will love the update on this story and Steak and Shake will be exposed to the public for the nasty, uncaring company they really are!

  18. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    Wow. I’m so happy that you’re going ahead and filing the complaint. SHAME on them for treating you like they did. I’m disgusted at their response and I hope only positive things come out of this for you and for others. Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help- letter-writing, emailing, calling, etc.

  19. Linda Levitan
    Linda Levitan says:

    I was hoping that Steak ‘n Shake would “see the light” and implement some real changes in policy. And they didn’t even fire that arrogant “Mr. Manager” who violated the law, but instead teated YOU as though you were the one in the wrong. I know that you did everything you could to get this resolved in a positive, civil, non-litigious way . . . but it looks as though Steak ‘n Shake is going to have to learn the hard way that discrimination ain’t legal. Or the way to promote the customer satisfaction touted in their Website. Throw the book at ’em!

  20. Jessica Barson
    Jessica Barson says:

    I have worked numerous fast food places over the last decade and I can tell you what 90% of their issue is. The pickup window has a timer. If you order there the timer goes up and makes their numbers look bad. Big wigs come barking on the managers, who in turn treat the crew shitty so the crew is all about rush rush to please them. So its a horrible, abusive cycle.

    I say go for it. Tell them to forget aobut numbers and stats…that the most important need is to serve the guest. I could understand if they had excessive swearing, or were having poor conduct in line. Those are reasons that would constitute a refusal of service. However having a handicap isnt on that list.

  21. J
    J says:

    I can understand being pissed off about the lack of service, but asking them to change their business just because a group of people is put off by it is asinine.

    They did not ask or force you to be their customer, and thus when you file lawsuits against them you are trying to force them to serve you. Complaining and asking them to make changes is one thing, but when you go and throw a lawsuit at them you are stating that you think you know how to run their business better than they do.

    That’d be like me as a smoker demanding that all restaurants have a smoking section with separate ventilation in states where it is required, so that I can enjoy a cigarette with my food, regardless of if it is actually economically feasible.

    I hope yours and the other person’s lawsuit gets thrown out.

  22. Ivy
    Ivy says:

    To J from 10/29/2008-
    The issue at hand is that they have a right to be a consumer – at ANY establishment. Smokers choose to smoke. A Deaf citizen did not choose to be deaf.

    I applaud their efforts and pray that all goes well on their behalf.

  23. S
    S says:

    Asking a company to install an expensive system in 400+ stores is asking a lot. I understand that it is upsetting to have been treated that way. However, in this economy it is hard enough to thrive. Add on to that the cost of implementing a touch screen or whatever and you may as well close the doors! Receiving service in drive thru is the problem here and with a little training on the part of the company it can be accomplished. All parties can walk away happy.

  24. unforgiven
    unforgiven says:

    S: you miss the point. It’s not about reequipping 400+ stores, and when this story started, the economy was fine. None of the solutions which would suffice to solve such a simple issue require anything more than employees and managers acting with common sense. It might take a bit of training on the part of corporate to retrain the idiots into using common sense and remembering to treat the customers as valued commodities. All they have to do is allow the customer, who is unable to use the speaker system to pull forward and give their order face to face. Yes, this will cause some inconvenience on the normal routine of the store and Yes, the customer will possibly have to wait longer for his/her order. But this simple solution of ordering face to face solves the entire problem. Simple retraining and possibly relabeling at places like Sonic, where the customer just needs to press twice or whatever creative solution Sonic thinks up, allows a carhop to run out and take the order. So I don’t think the theme of this column was ever about forcing Steak N Shake or any other place come up with a multi-million dollar solution, it was and is about “customer service” and “common sense” which Steak N Shake did not show, despite a very reasonable approach by the author. Maybe she would have been better off assaulting the HQ building of Steak N Shake with a team of rabid, spitting, drooling lawyers on a crusade.

  25. ShoalBear
    ShoalBear says:

    If you really stop and think about it, wouldn’t it be much more beneficial if ALL orders were taken face to face? How many times have you ordered and wondered what the heck they were saying back to you because of the lousy speaker system in place? I know that one time the speaker at a local McD’s was out of order and they had someone outside taking orders and they had a machine and entered in the order. Most places have 2 windows anyways (1 of which they never seem to use), so why not make the 1st window for ordering and the 2nd for pickup? Seems idiotic to me that they can’t figure this out for themselves!

    • megan
      megan says:

      You can come inside and order. You can sit down and order. You can call and order. You can drive in your car and order. You can order at six in the morning, evening, any day, any weather, any time. Some of us are hardworking moral individuals who unfortunately took a position with a company that doesn’t have policies in place to prevent or help the train wreck masquerading as a business to not effect the lives of the very people who put money in their suits. So I can give you your money back, the food you wanted and apologize all day for wasting that precious hour of your life. Because someone has to, right?

  26. Sam
    Sam says:

    The trainer in question is not a manger either, so there should have been another manager at the store. A trainer acts as the person between the management and associates. Still appalling, and I can’t believe the company has done nothing. If you ever come thru Morton, IL…please come by our Steak n Shake and you will get any service you would like, and if I am managing that day some free shakes as well.

  27. david r.
    david r. says:

    you are a fucking retard. the world does not revolve around you, you lazy dumb fuck. how are the employees at steak n shake supposed to help you when you can’t even hear them talking to you? it’s your own fault for being lazy and not just walking in. stupid dumb fuck people like you piss me off. if you have a problem with steak n shake then DONT GO THERE. why would the spend thousands of dollars on new technology just satisfy a fucking lazy ass lady? THEY DO NOT NEED YOUR BUSINESS so you can take it elsewhere and shove it.

  28. Linda Levitan
    Linda Levitan says:

    Karen, thank you for retaining David R.’s idiotic, obscene post. It’s revolting, but quite educational, don’t you think? It shows how far we’ve still have to go before we achieve equality. It reminds me of the way whites harassed blacks during the Civil Rights era—calling them “niggers” and “coons,” and waving nooses at them.

    David R., here’s a comment for you: the issue is not “spending thousands of dollars on new technology” but ATTITUDE . . . obviously, this is something you can’t even begin to comprehend. I recommend that you get yourself a little education and do something about that language problem of yours. Cussing like a cesspool . . . who’s the real “dumb fuck” here? You are a loser. Stop projecting your own inadequacies onto others.

  29. Elaine D
    Elaine D says:

    While I can empathize with your concerns, and applaud your effort to avoid litigation, I have to say that I think this has gone too far. I agree that the manager handled this incorrectly, because he should have just taken your order at the window, but asking for new technology is not feasible. Most of us would love to live in a world with universal design, but it will not happen through force. More people with (dis)abililties, or those who love them, will have to make the changes themselves. People not affected on a personal level by people with disabilities can not understand. The same was true in women’s liberation and the same holds true for racial discrimination. It takes those on the inside to make the changes…You can’t force people to be nice, and you can only TEACH people to be fair. Forcing it on them only causes resentment. They must first understand why there is a need.
    I managed a restaurant (VERY SIMILAR TO SNS) for years, and I am now a special education teacher. I understand many of the issues many people with different abilities face, but I also understand how restaurants work. It is ALL based on supply and demand. Until enough people demand it (through boycott), it isn’t going to happen. Unfortunately, hearing-disabled people are such a minority, that they rarely have a large enough economic voice to demand an audience. The first time that I had a blind customer and handed him a VERY out of date braille menu, I realized that I needed to make a change. I immediately ordered a new one…but they were all out of date…and no one could tell me when new ones would be printed. Everyone was PC about it, but nothing was getting done. In the store’s defense, I have had three blind customers in the five years I was with that company. Unfortunately, that is not enough to DEMAND change. I know that it’s not fair, but it is what it is. There is no reason why you should have to get out of your car. I don’t want to wake my daughter up, either. But, there is no reason why you can’t hand your written order in at the window. If you try that, and the restaurant still refuses service: that’s discrimination.I have had to have many people with poor English pull around to the window, because I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me. I pulled them around and clarified their order and served them. I couldn’t serve them in the same way the I could an English-speaking customer, but I wasn’t discriminating against them…we couldn’t effectively communicate otherwise. Those people didn’t try to sue me because I couldn’t speak Arabic or French: and they shouldn’t be able to. This society is too litigious. While I want each of my students with special needs to be able to enjoy the same rights as everyone else, I want them to understand what a RIGHT actually is. Do you have a right to be able to use the speaker box in the drive thru, or do you have the right to be served in the drive-thru? You have the right to be served. Discrimination is refusing you service…it is not refusing to serve you in exactly the same way as everyone else.
    We all need to rally together for UNIVERSAL DESIGN!!!

    Elaine Ds last blog post..Steak ‘n Shake, One Year Later

  30. KL
    KL says:

    Elaine, you may not have completely understood the issue. She TRIED to drive around to the window and was refused service. Unless she spoke into the speaker and placed the order that way. How can you NOT categorize that as discrimination?

  31. santiago lopez
    santiago lopez says:

    ive been in this company for 4 years. ive never gotten a complain or a write up from any off my managers till may 23, 2009 when i got fired. I got fired because patrick was not in a good mood that day and decided to take it all on me. i try to contact some one higher than him because i felt that their was no reason why he fired me and he was unfair to me but, when i called him he told me that he was going to call me back and he never did. i felt discriminated by them . this was in the location off Hoffman estates in barrington rd.

  32. SK
    SK says:

    I happen to be one of the “idiots” that work at sns. I also happen to work drive thru. I noticed that someone mentioned something about drive thru timers and as an employee who needs the money, being threatened to keep times under 2 minutes and 30 seconds at the risk of being written up which can lead to eventual termination, I can tell you that I do my damndest to get customer’s through as quickly as possible.

    Now I’m not saying that the manager was right in how he handled things but I know how the company works and the same would probably happen at my store with a few of the less undestanding employees. At the same time though, you did choose to go through the drive thru which clearly didn’t accomidate you. It would have been much easier on all parties if you had done a carry out order. Steak n Shake is a very cheap, strict company. Employees are not allowed to post pictures online of the store in any way because it’s an automatic termination. The fact that I’m writing this could get me fired if discovered.

    Basically, the place is stuck in its ways. I’m sorry to say that you’re fighting a losing battle.

  33. Bonnie Laubaugh
    Bonnie Laubaugh says:

    My brother worked 8 years for Steak and Shake with only positive reviews. He contacted corporate offices when he noticed a black female worker with more seniority was paid less than a man for the same job. He told them she should be paid more. They ignored his request. The woman quit and filed suit with EEOC. They contacted him and asked if he would testify on her behalf. When he said yes. EEOC told him to contact them if the company tried to get even with him. Suddenly he was written up every month and then fired last week. He contacted EEOC who is no help yet. He will probably have to leave area to find a new job so the woman will not have him to testify on her behalf. He is 60 yrs old and a younger cheaper employee has taken his place. There is no justice for him or the black woman who was being discriminated against. Trying to fight big business only hurt him. Steak and Shake has a lot to learn.

  34. James S.
    James S. says:

    The only words coporations understand is: Lawsuite.
    Ignorance? They are only ignorance until they have a disability.


  35. isaac pentlin
    isaac pentlin says:

    I came into the Steak and Shake store in Rockhill,sc at 7pm. I was inhaling an electronic cigarette. It does not have a smell; it does not bother anyone. A yong girl sitting with her parents complained to management as They were leaving. The manage notices that I am inhaling it after I have completed my meal; She tells me to put it out. I tell her that I wont. She threatens to call the police and thshe tries to plead with my wife to again -put it out.. I am done with my meal and I blowed water vapor towards the manager and she ducked but it evaporated before it reached 5ft between her and I.
    This manager is really naive to believe a young girl 12-16yrs old, call it a device and ask me to put it out.
    I have to tell Cigar Dave about this inccident. This law does or should not affect me. But there are anti smoking vigilanties who if the seen a toothpik or a straw in some ones’ mouth they will complain; because the law empowers anybody. The law or policy is prjudicial!

  36. Unforgiven
    Unforgiven says:


    Your comment was completely off topic and irrelevant to the sad event which lead to the OP writing of her experience with Steak and Shake. However since you wish to touch upon the tobacco issue, it seems that you’re the one acted like a child. Steak and Shake is a private business, regardless of the whether or not the law forbids your electronic cigarette in a public restaurant, Steak and Shake has the right to demand that you not use that product in their establishment, esp if they determine that its use is offensive to other customers. Your attitude of righteous indignation against Steak and Shake exercising their right of providing their customers a tobacco free environment, is part of what causes so many non-smokers to be so intolerant of any kind of tobacco use.

    Back to the original topic, I’d like to know if the Steak and Shake mentioned above, and Steak and Shake’s corporate entities have done anything to institute some common sense into how they handle deaf customers, esp when it’d be so simple to just take the order at the window, then ask the customer to pull forward, while they process the other orders which they were able to take over their noisebox. It really would be such a simple matter of offering true customer service in avoiding this kind of issue ever happening.

  37. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    That corporations does not CARE. I had a bad experience, filed a complaint and was never contacted for an apology.

    I will never go to any Steak and Shake again. I people here this complaints and took them seriously this will never happened again. DO NOT EAT OR SPONSOR STEAK and SHAKE.

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