There are a lot of people who say "I support the troops," put a yellow ribbon on their car, or hang a star in their window. The owners and staff of Fran O'Brien's Steak House have gone WAY beyond the call when it comes to showing their support.
Since October of 2003 Marty O'Brien and Hal Koster have been providing a free "Friday Night out on the Town" at Fran O'Briens Stadium Steak House for thousands of severely injured soldiers and marines who are recuperating nearby at Walter Reed Army Hospital and Bethesda Naval Medical Center. Hal, a Vietnam vet, and his partner Marty, have made it a policy to continue continue doing this ... UNTIL THE LAST SOLDIER WOUNDED IN THIS CONFLICT HAS GONE HOME FROM WALTER REED AND BETHESDA.
That is stunning. What is even more stunning is how their landlord, Hilton Hotel Corp., responded. Hilton served Fran O'Brien's with an eviction notice. Why? Hilton doesn't want to spend the money to provide equal access for disabled people.
When I first read about this, I wrote a letter to Thomas Keltner, Vice President of Branding Performance for Hilton Hotel Corp. and Jeff Diskin, Senior Vice President for Brand Management & Marketing. I received a polite, but unresponsive form letter in return. That is when I called Hal Koster to get the facts of the situation. What he told me is outrageous.
This complementary dinner is an elaborate affair with an open bar, accompanied by a full steak dinner with all the trimmings including desert. After dinner comfort packages are provided to each of the soldiers and full steak dinners are provided for other soldiers and family members back at the hospital who couldn't make it that night. All of this at absolutely no cost to the soldiers or their families or invited staff. This has been going on each Friday now for two and a half years!
Soldiers, family members, hospital staff, their doctors and nurses and some of the most senior staff physicians at both hospitals have spoken out about the therapeutic value these nights offer as part of the soldier's recovery. I also spoke with Margaret, the banquet director at Fran O'Brien's, and she told me the staff have all gotten special training to deal with the kind of disabilities they are seeing.
Let's be real frank here. When someone missing part of their jaw orders a steak, you need to prepare it especially for them, or they can't eat it. The chef at Fran O'Brien's knows how to puree it so it tastes great and they can actually enjoy it. Talking with Margaret, the banquet director at Fran's, it was really clear this isn't about free steaks and beer. It's much more than that. It's about treating these men and women with respect. It's about helping them get more than a good meal. It's about helping them get some dignity. "I've been working here for a long time. We're all like family here. When someone missing their lower jaw finally gets to enjoy a steak, we all cry," she explained.
Here's the situation: Fran O'Brien's is downstairs at the Capitol Hilton. That's an important point. We all know there is a Federal law called the Americans with Disabilities Act. The bottom line on that piece of legislation is "equal access" for people with disabilities. That's why we have handicapped parking. That's why we have bathroom stalls with handrails. That is why a lot of things are done. Not because it's nice. They're done because it's the law. If you have a flight of stairs leading to your restaurant, you must have "equal access" available for handicapped patrons. It's not an option.
Here's the outrageous part: There is an escalator that leads down to Fran O'Brien's. IT HAS BEEN BROKEN SINCE 1998! Hal and Marty have been fighting with Hilton to get that repaired for SIX YEARS! Hilton has never done it. Instead, after a few years of promising to do it, sending in engineers, etc. Hilton BOARDED UP THE ESCALATOR. As part of their lease negotiations, the owners asked Hilton to consider putting in a lift for the disabled vets in wheelchairs. That was when they got the eviction notice.
At this point, you are probably wondering how in the world does a disabled person get into the restaurant now? If you need to use a disabled entrance this is how you get to Fran O'Brien's:
1) You have to go to the lobby of the Capitol Hilton.
2) Then you have to go to the security desk.
3) Then you have to be escorted by the security guard on duty to a coat room.
4) The security guard punches in a code on the key pad and escorts you through the coat room.
5) Then he takes you to "the back of the house," as they call the service area in hotels.
6) Then they escort you to the lift and take you down to the basement.
7) When you get to the bottom, someone from the restaurant has to meet you and then escort you to the restaurant at the other end of the building.
Now you can eat.
A) When you finish your meal, someone from the restaurant has to contact the security desk.
B) Then they have to escort you to the elevator.
C) Then they have to wait until someone from security arrives.
D) Then the person from the security desk escorts you back up to the main floor.
E) Then they take you back through the coat room, again keying in the security codes.
Now you can leave.
It's clear "equal access" means something radically different to Hilton Hotel Corp than it would to any sane individual. Here's a simple question: What happens if there is a fire?
Here's how you can help:
If we are going to help them continue to help others, we need to generate national awareness so Hilton Hotels feels it in the only place that matters, their wallet. Marty and Hal have not gone public with this earlier because they didn't want to screw up the already complicated lease negotiations. Now that they have an eviction notice, they have nothing left to lose.
Let me be crystal clear here. As a small business owner, I am not in the business of telling other people how to run their business. The only people who do that don't have a business of their own. If Hilton Hotels wants to sully the Hilton brand name the way Paris Hilton has sullied the Hilton family name, that's their choice. However, choices come with consequences.
I know of military groups that have already cancelled events at Hilton properties in Texas and elsewhere. It is time to support our troops and get the word out to a broader audience. It is time to boycott the following hotel chains:
Hampton Inn & Suites
Hilton Garden Inn
Another way to show support is for people who do travel to pick up the stationary from their hotel room and write a letter to Hilton corporate headquarters, the local newspapers, TV and radio stations saying:
"I'm sending you this note from [non Hilton property] to let you know I think the way Hilton Hotel Corp. is treating the people and patrons at Fran O'Brien's Steak House in Washington DC is wrong. I chose to stay at [non Hilton property] because I support our troops. I simply can't get a good night's sleep at a Hilton property as long as they turn their back on severely wounded soldiers."
Mail it to:
Executive Vice President,
Hilton Hotel Corporation,
9336 Civic Center Drive
Beverly Hills, California 90210
The Mission Statement on the Hilton Web site is:
To be the first choice of the world's travelers
Our Mission Statement needs to be equally clear:
To show Hilton that bad choices have bad consequences.