This restaurant only hires wait staff with dementia or Alzheimer’s

Patrons at the Restaurant of Order Mistakes in Tokyo got a truly unique dining experience last month: All six of the wait staff had Alzheimer’s or dementia.

The idea? Unless you know someone with dementia, you may have preconceived notions about people who suffer from the disease. The Restaurant of Order Mistakes, a two-day pop-up in early June, was designed to help dispel those notions, reduce the stigma and open up opportunities for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The dining experience was a huge success by an unconventional measure, according to the Japanese design blog Spoon and Tamago.

“The staff who have dementia may get your order wrong. But if you go in knowing that, it changes your perception about those who suffer from the brain disease and it makes you realize that with a little bit of understanding on our part, dementia patients can be functioning members of society.”

The pop-up, which got its name from a Japanese story, was organized by a group of volunteers from Japanese TV stations and ad agencies, and hosted at Maggie’s Tokyo, the Japanese offshoot of a UK restaurant chain. The organizers are planning a similar venture for September 21, World Alzheimer’s Day.

One blogger who ate at the restaurant tweeted that she ordered hamburger, but was fine when gyoza dumplings came instead and “had a good laugh, LOL” (some nuances may have been lost in the Bing translation!). 

Articles about the Restaurant of Order Mistakes have clocked up 14 million hits on Google, so it seems that the organizers have gotten their message out —but not without controversy, judging by some comments. One commenter at Spoon & Tamango writes, “That is disgusting. Why don’t we make a ‘dirty’ car wash staffed with paraplegics?” Another posted, “Let’s try to understand people by making fun of them and their problems! This is vile.”

But several commenters who have family members with Alzheimer’s and other dementias seemed to agree with the effort:

“The woman who thought it was funny that she got something different than what she ordered definitely didn’t mean it with ill intent. I remember getting sad and angry when my great grandma forgot who I was. Whenever I would correct her mistakes she would get frustrated and often times decline in health, so I stopped doing that all together. Dementia and Alzheimer’s is not something that can be stopped so I think the overall concept is to not get so frustrated when they make mistakes. Go with the flow and enjoy the time you have left with them.”

One of the servers who was shadowed and interviewed by Mamoru Ichikawa, a healthcare journalist at Yahoo Japan, admitted as her shift started that she was nervous she might forget something. At her first table, she forgot why she was there—her customers gently reminded her. By the end of her shift, she was getting the orders right and delivering the right meal to the right person. And although she still felt she had not done a good job, she told Yahoo, “Doing something new is great. I somehow feel excited.”

According to Shiro Oguni, one of the organizers who Ichikawa interviewed, the customers shared that sense of excitement—the experience of helping with humor and without judgement was itself “a precious moment of “communication,” he said.

“If each and every one of us can have a little bit of tolerance that it doesn’t matter even if small mistakes are made,” Oguni told Yahoo Japan, then…we might be able to make a slight change in the situation where there are no easy solutions. We ourselves will one day be the ones that need to be supported. In order for ourselves to be in a slightly happier environment, I felt that we need to rethink about ‘tolerance’.”

Some U.S. companies employ developmentally disabled people as workers or greeters with no blowback. Is this a reasonable next step? Is a restaurant staffed by people with dementia compassionate or unkind? Would you go to such a restaurant?