F&W Game Changers: Yannick Benjamin

The sommelier and restaurateur making hospitality accessible to everyone.

Yannick Benjamin
Photo: Mikhail Lipyanskiy

What you see when you walk into Yannick Benjamin's restaurant, Contento, is a lively bistro in East Harlem, in New York City. Brick walls, wooden tables, bright art on the walls: It could be any other restaurant, full of people eating and talking. Look closer. A section of the bar is low enough that someone in a wheelchair can actually enjoy being at the bar, can order a drink from the bartender. One customer might have their support dog sitting next to them (a real support dog, not any of that I-want-to-take-my-pug-on-the-plane, bought-a-vest-online bullshit). There's adaptive flatware available for people who are arthritic or have neurological issues. And the tables are set far enough apart that someone in a wheelchair — like Benjamin himself — can navigate among them.

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Benjamin, a sommelier and restaurateur, and his business partner George Gallego, designed Contento specifically to be accessible in all ways to the disabled community. Partly this is an intelligent, practical decision. As Benjamin says, "There are 61 million Americans classified as having a disability — that means something like $500 billion of spending. So why aren't we as restaurateurs reaching out to that audience?" More importantly, it's a good thing to do. Although more and more restaurants are becoming compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're easy for people with disabilities to enjoy. Benjamin points out that just because there are bars in the bathroom stall doesn't mean there's room to actually get your wheelchair in there and then get out of it. "The reason that people with disabilities don't go out to eat is fear of rejection, fear of showing up and there are two steps to get into the restaurant's front door," he says. "'We're in hospitality,' I thought. 'We can fix this.'"

In a form of bitter irony, those two steps into the restaurant form part of his own story. In 2003, when he was working at Atelier at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in NYC (since closed), a customer in a wheelchair arrived, having been told he could access the restaurant easily off the hotel's lobby. But inside the restaurant, there were two steps. Benjamin, an assistant sommelier, lifted him over the steps. "I was a big, strong guy," he recalls. Later that same night, Benjamin was paralyzed from the waist down in a car wreck. "After I got out of the hospital, I called our GM and said, 'We can make this work. We'll put table 23 here, and move this table there...' But then it really set in. You get the broken elevator, or the bus lift that isn't working."

Nevertheless, he persevered, eventually becoming the wine director at the University Club of New York. In 2012, he co-founded Wine on Wheels, a nonprofit that focuses on training people with disabilities and inspiring them, "and then seeing if we can get them internships in major restaurant groups or hotel chains."

The response to Contento from the disabled community has been strong, Benjamin says. "But it's not just about the physical space. People recognize there's a culture here, and the people who work here are part of that; nineteen people work here, and six of them have disabilities. Our dishwasher, Juan, is autistic. Another of our people is a cancer survivor and an amputee; she works remotely."

The world of disability is almost infinite.

He adds, "The world of disability is almost infinite. Just because I'm in a wheelchair doesn't mean I understand what it is to be blind, or to be hearing-impaired. We had the menus in braille, for instance, but actually few vision-impaired people read braille." As a result, staff training, Benjamin says, is even more important than some of Contento's physical characteristics. "If someone is vision-challenged, you have to know to say, 'I'll put your glass of water at your 11 o'clock and your wine at your 1 o'clock.'" The staff also receives sign-language training to help people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Benjamin may be on a quest to make the hospitality world friendlier to people with disabilities, but he's also a restaurateur. So were his father and uncles: At one time known in the business as the "Brittany mafia," they all came from the same small town in France, and all worked at New York's top French restaurants in an earlier era. "My uncle was the maître d' at La Grenouille for 30 years. Dad was at Lutèce for 20 years. My cousin was at Le Périgord. By the age of 13, I knew restaurants were what I wanted to do. It seemed so glamorous. And I looked up to them enormously," he says. Contento's Peruvian-influenced food, courtesy of executive chef Oscar Lorenzzi, is superb. The wine list (no surprise) is excellent.

But Benjamin is hardly finished. His next plan is to open a wine shop in Hell's Kitchen. "The liquor license people asked me, 'What's your social utility?' I said, 'Well, the entire store is going to be barrier free. I'm in a wheelchair.'" He got his liquor license. "I'm going to call it Beaupierre — it means 'beautiful rock,' but also my dad's name is Pierre. I already have a rocking chair for him that we're going to have in the shop. Oh — and I'm also working on an app where someone who's vision-impaired can scan a wine label, and their phone will read the label back to them."

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