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Dan Tapia wearing an orange shirt smiling and posing for the camera in the Fourth and Olive kitchen

Disabled Vet Leads Restaurant, Hires Other Vets with Disabilities

the exterior of Fourth and Olive showing glass windows

Fourth and Olive

Long Beach, Calif. – Chatter fills the room. Floor to ceiling windows encompass a room interwoven with a wall here or there. The smell of freshly cured bacon hangs in the air mingling with the scent of steak fries and fish. Exposed wooden beams hang from the ceiling, and white cloths cover the tables. The space is intimate.

It is Friday night at Fourth and Olive, Long Beaches’ best restaurant of 2017 (LA Weekly). And just like any other great restaurant, there is magic coming from the kitchen but with a special twist.

Co-owner and chef Dan Tapia started Fourth and Olive not only to produce great food but also to employ great people. Tapia is a retired Navy Submariner with a disability. He uses a walking cane. After facing discrimination by a former restaurant where he worked, he opened Fourth and Olive – a restaurant where employment will never be discriminated against because of a disability.

“When you hire someone with a disability, you’re hiring someone with something to prove who is never going to do anything to jeopardize the opportunity because he or she is not taking anything for granted,” says Tapia.

Dan Tapia wearing an orange shirt smiling and posing for the camera in the Fourth and Olive kitchen

Dan Tapia

Tapia’s mantra, while it is not explicitly stated on the restaurant’s website, is that Fourth and Olive is veteran-owned and veteran-operated. “Vets and people with disabilities have different ways of achieving their goals. The biggest obstacle is educating other employers on how to do it [hiring Vets],” says Tapia. “People just have to change their culture, and the bottom line will be changed for the better.”

The restaurant itself has approximately 15 employees; five of whom have a disability and eight of whom are veterans. Tapia also has made it a point to hire female kitchen staff because women traditionally are seen working only in the ‘front of the house’ in positions such as waitress, busser and hostess. Ultimately, Tapia’s goal for the staff is to be ethnically and racially diverse including gender, sexuality and, of course, ability.

“There could be a lot bigger obstacles in the workplace than having [an employee] with a disability,” says Tapia. “The concept of self-awareness, and ability to show up on time are important. A person with a good attitude operating at 50 percent is better than someone with a shitty attitude operating at 100 percent.”

Employees working in the kitchen at Fourth and Olive

Employees working in the kitchen

Tapia holds all of his employees to the same high standards. He does not micromanage anyone, and it is the responsibility of the employee to complete tasks and ask for any accommodations needed. Nothing less than complete equality and integration is allowed within the restaurant. After all, Tapia himself knows what it feels like to be stigmatized because of a disability.

“I assume you can do everything until you tell me what your limitations are,” says Tapia. “I am going to push you just as hard as if you are able-bodied.”

This model is working. Tapia has had the same employee success rate with veterans who have disabilities and veterans who do not. To train each staff member costs 2500 dollars over the course of three months until the staff member is working independently and productively. So far the restaurant has broken even after just nine months of being open.

“Hire someone with a disability and use his disability to your advantage. Someone on the autism spectrum cleans, shucks oysters and does data entry,” says Tapia when describing his current employee with autism. “For me that’s like pulling teeth [to do], but for him he just eats it up. I don’t have the fuel for that.”

Dan Tapia seated at a table with a man and two women

Dan Tapia talking with members of the RespectAbility team

Tapia’s entrepreneurial spirit and goal-oriented attitude have made him a featured example of RespectAbility’s #RespectTheAbility campaign, which highlights companies that either employ or are run by people with disabilities. An estimated 15 percent of business owners are people with disabilities.

Tapia’s goals for Fourth and Olive do not stop at inclusive employment. Tapia has come to realize that the environment of a restaurant may not be conducive for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So he has come up with a new plan. In the future, he hopes to open a garden for veterans with PTSD to maintain where all the produce will directly supply the restaurant. In time, he also hopes to open a culinary school for veterans with disabilities.

Fully one-in-five Americans have a disability and polls show that most of them want to work. Yet 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are outside of the workforce. Tapia is proving that people with disabilities, with the right support, can change this statistic.

“I find roles that certain people with disabilities might be good at,” says Tapia. “It is more of a differently-abled situation than a disabled situation.”

#RespectTheAbility Success Stories

Download our free toolkit, “Disability Employment First Planning Tool,” for more information.

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Meet the Author

Julia Wood
Julia Wood

Julia Wood is a Communications Fellow at RespectAbility and a senior at Emerson College. She is not stranger when it comes to advocating for people with disabilities. Growing up she advocated for her sister who had Mitochondrial Disease and Leukemia. Previously she volunteered for "Buddy Ball” and “Make-A-Wish.”

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