Complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements is among the legal and regulatory considerations you should consider when starting a restaurant. In addition to ensuring accessibility for your restaurant layout, ADA compliance should be reflected in your restaurant policies, menu, and even when onboarding employees.
Let’s take a deeper look at ADA requirements for restaurants so you can provide an accessible food service business for all customers.
What Is ADA Compliance for Restaurants?
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in an effort to make sure businesses and public facilities are accessible to people with a range of disabilities, both physical and mental. ADA compliance for restaurants is the process of making sure your business meets the ADA restaurant requirements.
ADA compliance creates inclusivity, allowing everyone to dine comfortably and access food service establishments without barriers. ADA compliance not only complies with legal requirements but also creates a welcoming atmosphere, expanding customer reach and demonstrating a commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Why Is Accessibility Important for Restaurants?
Restaurants are in the business of hospitality, and should ultimately strive to provide dining experiences accessible to all. Also consider that more than 50 million Americans have disabilities, according to estimates from the US government—that’s a significant number of customers your restaurant can attract. Maintaining ADA compliance widens your audience base, allowing you to connect with an underserved and often forgotten segment.
Moreover, if you fail to be ADA-compliant, you may be subject to paying costly fines and lawsuits. The total number of ADA-related federal lawsuits filed is on the rise, year after year—hitting a peak of 11,452 in 2021, a 4% increase from the year prior.
Being ADA-compliant can also help you stand out. Municipalities themselves neglect ADA compliance—less than a quarter are fully compliant, in fact. ADA-compliant restaurants have the opportunity to cater to a group of consumers who have been cast aside by many businesses and governments alike.
In addition to avoiding legal issues, ADA compliance can also improve brand image. Consumers increasingly look to support businesses with a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR) in their core values, and maintaining ADA compliance is one way to win these conscious consumers over. It’s always a good idea to remain competitive, especially since restaurant statistics say that nearly half of restaurant operators believe 2023 to be more competitive than the year prior.
How to Meet ADA Compliance Requirements in Your Restaurant
There are a few key areas to keep in mind when addressing compliance in restaurants.
Exterior of Your Restaurant
One place to start is with your restaurant’s location and outside space. This includes the parking area, sidewalks, and entry/exit. It’s important to remove any potential obstacles from these spaces, and also offer signage that’s visible and easy to read.
Here are some more specifics to consider:
Parking is an ADA priority. If you have a parking lot, make sure you have spaces specifically reserved for patrons with disabilities. These spaces must be adequately marked and provide at least three feet of clear area on either side of the space.
The parking area should be free of cracks, potholes, uneven or raised areas, shopping carts, gravel, snow, ice, mud, debris, trash, maintenance equipment, leaf piles, and promotional displays. Another thing to do is make sure parking signage is still visible even if cars are parked in the spaces.
It’s also important to get rid of any obstacles on your curbs, signs, access aisle, curb ramp, and route connecting the ADA-compliant space to your restaurant entrance. This pathway should be at least 3 feet wide the whole way, allowing for plenty of space for people of all abilities.
The parking area is especially important if you have a food truck parked in a parking lot, for example. It’s best to avoid positioning your truck in gravel, grass, or areas with uneven or elevated surfaces, such as stairs or a curb lacking a ramp or curb cut.
Entry & Exit
The ADA also prioritizes access to entrances and exits. The doorway must be at least 3 feet wide, as well as the route leading up to it. Just like your parking area, the route must be smooth and free of any major issues like cracks, uneven surfaces, or potholes.
The route and entryway also need to be unobstructed—anything hanging above, such as trees, business signs, stringed lights, hanging plants, etc.—must be at least 80 inches above the walkway. And anything on the side shouldn’t extend more than 4 inches into the route.
When it comes to the actual doorspace of your entryway, make sure there’s nothing between 18 and 42 inches on the latch side of the door preventing it from opening all the way. The entryway here must also be at least 3 feet wide.
If your main entryway doesn’t have enough space to be ADA-compliant, you can offer an alternate entryway that meets accessibility requirements. Note: All accessible entrances and exits must be adequately marked with directional signage and remain unlocked during your operating hours. In most cases, it’s best to make your main entryway ADA-compliant, as you don’t want guests with disabilities to feel like second-class customers or segmented from other diners.
If you have an elevator, ensure you maintain it properly and it’s always in working order. Like your entrance and exit, elevators should be free of obstacles such as trash, product displays, etc.
Interior of Your Restaurant
ADA compliance should be top of mind when planning your restaurant’s space. Keep the following restaurant ADA compliance information in mind when it comes to the inside of your shop:
When designing your restaurant floor plan, there are many ADA requirements to consider. In general, restaurant dining areas typically need 60% of the restaurant space to provide adequate seating and traffic flow.
Specific ADA considerations include:
- Offer accessible tables scattered throughout the dining area to be able to accommodate all guests—even if you’re a casual bar or eatery with mostly high-top tables and counters.
- All paths must remain clear of product displays, seasonal installations, visual merchandising, and all other physical objects—nothing can protrude into the path more than four inches.
- Make sure there’s enough space between tables for people with wheelchairs to comfortably pass through. This means three feet of empty space around all tables, even when diners are seated at those tables.
- Keep all paths free of long fabrics, like tablecloths or curtains, that may get in the way.
- Install clear directional signage leading from the accessible entry to other areas of the restaurant.
- Avoid low-hanging lighting fixtures, signs, shelves, etc. that may obscure physical pathways or vision—keep things at least 80 inches above the walkway.
- There must be an accessible path to all dining areas, even if sunken, raised, outside, on a deck, etc. This also includes any areas such as ordering counters, condiment stations, restrooms, food service lines, self-service stations, and pay counters.
If you’re making any repairs or upgrades to the space that require customers to detour, those detoured routes must also be accessible and well-marked.
There are specific ADA guidelines for restaurants regarding dining surfaces, such as tables and counters. Here’s a quick ADA compliance checklist for restaurants when it comes to dining surfaces:
- At least 5% of the tables (or at least one table if you have fewer than 20 total) must be accessible.
- Tables must be no more than 34 inches tall and no less than 28 inches above the floor.
- Tables must provide at least 27 inches of knee clearance between the floor and the underside of the table.
- There must be a clear area of 30 inches by 48 inches at each accessible seating location.
- The clear area must extend at least 19 inches under the table in order to provide adequate leg and knee clearance.
Some restaurant spaces may not allow for the above. In such cases, you can offer a designated accessible location that’s easy to use. These locations should be for all customers, not just segregated spaces for those with different abilities.
Note: You’re not required to provide dining surfaces. Food trucks and drive-through coffee shops, for example, may not have any tables at all. If this is the case, you may not have to worry about this particular area of compliance.
As far as service counters—spaces for ordering, paying, self-service, or picking up to-go orders, for example—the biggest restrictions pertain to height and the surrounding area. Counters should be at least 36 inches wide and no more than 36 inches tall. If you have a pay counter or checkout area, make sure there’s a clear space at least 30 inches by 40 inches big. Additionally, your accessible counter areas must be staffed at all times during business hours.
This can get tricky for businesses like food trucks. It’s important that your service window is accessible and, if not, you offer an alternative.
Restrooms also need to be accessible per ADA. Keep entrances obstacle-free, and there should be nothing prohibiting the door from opening all the way. Make sure they’re unlocked during business hours, or the keys are available in an accessible location if you need to keep them locked. Use signage that’s easy to see and follow, with the main sign mounted next to the latch side of the door, 5 feet to the center of the sign.
Once inside the restroom, ensure there’s nothing in the way. This includes trash cans, chairs, shelving, and bathroom supplies. You also need at least one sink no more than 34 inches from the floor—with a minimum of 48 inches of clear floor space underneath—as well as an accessible toilet no more than 19 inches tall, with grab bars.
As far as maintenance goes, it’s not only a good practice to keep your restrooms clean and stocked—it’s also required. Any accessible soap and paper towel dispensers should always be filled.
If you plan to open a restaurant with a “no pets” policy, it’s important that you make an exception for service animals. Many people with disabilities have service animals to help them safely navigate their day-to-day, and restaurants aren’t allowed to ban such animals. Include the exception in your policy and make sure it’s well-known.
Menus & Other Printed Information
When it comes to printed information, like your menu, signs, flyers, or anything else, there are some extra considerations. First, the colors should have enough contrast so it’s easy to read. Additionally, printed material must also be available in Braille. You might also have large print and audio versions available. Use audio on digital displays, as well as subtitles if someone’s speaking.
Find more tips in our expert guide to menu development planning and design.
Staffing and managing a restaurant is no easy feat, and you also have to be aware of ADA-related policies when it comes to employment—as well as training your staff to be knowledgeable enough to help your restaurant meet compliance standards. Having good relationships with your staff is just good business—47% of customers perceive “employee-centric” restaurants to be more trustworthy than the average establishment.
If you’re an employer, all the same requirements for your customers apply to your workers, with some additions. You must abide by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which prohibits businesses from discriminating against anyone with disabilities in the hiring process. The requirements are a bit more flexible if you have fewer than 15 employees, but it’s still important to keep in mind.
It’s also important to properly train and inform your staff about the accessible modifications and resources in your restaurant. The more they know, the more they can help you maintain an inclusive dining environment.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
These are some of the most common questions we hear about restaurant ADA compliance.
ADA in restaurants means they must abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act which was passed in 1990 to require businesses and public spaces maintain accessibility for people with all sorts of physical and mental disabilities. It’s important for restaurants to understand and adhere to the guidelines set forth in the ADA.
- Clear parking areas and dedicated spaces for those with disabilities
- Clear path at least 3 feet wide to all entries and exits
- Entryways and exist at least 3 feet wide
- Proper signage
- Clear pathways with signage
- Tables must be no more than 34 inches tall and no less than 28 inches above the floor, and have at least 27 inches of knee clearance between the floor and the underside of the table.
- There must be a clear area of 30 inches by 48 inches at each accessible seating location. It must extend at least 19 inches under the table in order to provide adequate leg and knee clearance.
ADA compliance is important not just from a legal perspective but also a human one. Diners come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, and it’s important for businesses to accommodate the unique needs of differently abled persons. Maintaining accessibility is one way to show your restaurant cares about people, which can boost brand image, customer loyalty, and, ultimately, sales.