“It’s not that difficult to make things accessible”: A Q&A with the owners of a Toronto restaurant that caters to neurodivergent people
Sarang Kitchen in Dovercourt Village serves up Korean fried chicken—and inclusivity
What happens when a behaviour support specialist and a chef team up? In this particular instance, they start a Korean fried chicken restaurant like nowhere else in the city. A month ago, Jennifer Low, a teacher with a specialization in inclusive and special education, and her partner in business and life, chef Deon Kim, opened Sarang Kitchen in Dovercourt Village. Besides cooking up crispy-crunchy chicken, Sarang offers a range of accessibility features designed to accommodate neurodiverse patrons, such as people who are on the autism spectrum. For these guests, Sarang provides noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys and even a multi-sensory room with weighted blankets and an ambient soundscape. The restaurant also makes a point to hire neurodivergent staff—and pay them a living wage. Here, Low and Kim discuss how they made their accessibility-focused restaurant dream a reality.
Related: “It’s not fair for your paycheque to be contingent on a stranger’s mood”
How did you two meet? And who came up with this concept?
Kim: I’m from Korea, and Jennifer is from Singapore, but we met a few years ago on Bumble in Christchurch, New Zealand, where we were both living at the time. Our first date was on Christmas Eve. We went to a park to listen to Christmas carols. At the time, I was cooking at a restaurant part-time while studying computer science, but I really wanted to focus on being a chef.
Low: I was working at Waitaha School, which caters to students with special needs. One night, I invited my students and their parents out for dinner. At the end of the evening, some of the parents told us that they hadn’t been out for a meal as a family in more than a decade. It hit me that all of these things we take for granted—like dinners with family or going out with friends—can be so stressful for neurodivergent people and their families and caregivers.
Is that because restaurants generally aren’t welcoming places for people with specific sensory or communication needs?
Low: Exactly—with all of the noise and commotion, a restaurant can be extremely overwhelming for some. And when neurodivergent kids turn 21 and leave the school support system, parents often feel helpless—it’s hard for them to find a place to go out and have a meal, let alone find their children employment. So, when we moved to Toronto last year, we began thinking about how we could start a business that benefited from our individual skills. We decided that we would open a restaurant inspired by—and for—people like my students.
Kim: Of course, we wanted to open a successful business that turns a profit, but we also wanted to help as many people as possible in the process.
Can you walk me through the restaurant’s accessibility features?
Low: When you walk in, you’ll see a cabinet lined with colourful boxes. These are our sensory boxes. They contain fidget toys like bubble wrap and Rubik’s Cubes, cards that depict simple mindfulness exercises, and noise-cancelling headphones—because, even though we play calming music and make a point to keep the volume low, between conversation and noise from the kitchen, restaurants can still be very loud places. Each box also contains a core board, which is essentially a communication aid for people with language limitations. It’s a colourful board with pictures corresponding to common words or phrases like “want,” “thank you,” “bathroom” and so on, which guests can point to in order to convey their needs.
The lights are pretty dim in here. Is that intentional?
Low: Yes—dim lighting is another accessibility feature, and we can always dim the lights further if someone asks. But, if all else fails and a patron starts to feel overwhelmed or anxious, they can visit our multi-sensory room. It has a weighted blanket, a white-noise machine with a choice of ambient sounds, fibre-optic lights and some other sensory implements.
I understand you also make a point to hire neurodivergent staff. What does that mean for you from a training perspective?
Low: We currently have four neurodivergent team members, including some with autism and ADHD. We have a training manual with lots of visual cues, clearly laid-out steps and detailed checklists. Our staff are so hard working and absolutely wonderful at their jobs.
Kim: We can also customize training materials. For instance, one of our staff members has his own checklist with pictures, which works better for him. We ask people what they need and then work to meet those needs. One of my back-of-house team members learns best through watching videos, so I make cooking videos for him. And we check in with our staff regularly to make sure everyone is doing well.
You also have a hospitality-included policy, right?
Low: Yes. Neither of us grew up in a country where tipping was the norm, and to be honest, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I don’t know why I would pay our hardworking staff minimum wage and force them to rely on tips to survive. Employers should pay for their employees’ livelihoods. So we are a certified living-wage employer, and tipping is absolutely not expected here.
And the food is hardly an afterthought. Tell me a bit about your menu.
Kim: Our speciality is Korean fried chicken. I marinate it for 12 hours and batter it twice so it’s crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. It took me a year to develop these recipes. We make all of our own sauces and pickles. We also put together platters—individual or party-sized—that come with boneless or bone-in fried chicken, one of five house-made sauces, cabbage and pickled radish. And there are lots of appetizers to choose from, like dumplings, bulgogi, squid rings and tempura prawns. I hope to expand the menu in the future.
What other hopes do you have for the restaurant’s future?
Low: My dream is to open a Sarang Kitchen location back in Christchurch so my former students can have good jobs when they’re done school. But I really see Sarang Kitchen as a stepping stone for our staff—not that we don’t want them here, but we also want to help them gain the skills they need to further their careers elsewhere, if that’s what they want.
I also hope other restaurateurs will look at what we’re doing and gather some inspiration. The truth is, it’s not that difficult to make things accessible—to have visual aids in your training manuals or to have sensory tools available for neurodivergent patrons. Neurodivergent people have unique talents and strengths. They deserve meaningful employment and accommodating spaces where they can go out and enjoy themselves.