ADA Violation or Just Bad Business? Honey, I Shrunk the Menu!

When a chain restaurant introduced a new menu with teeny-tiny print, customers were not happy. But was it illegal?

Older woman tries to hand her eyeglasses to an older man who's squinting at a restaurant menu.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

My paralegal, Anne, buzzed me. “You have two readers on the phone who work at a pizza restaurant and found you after reading your article about the near-mutiny at the seafood restaurant where customers considered themselves victims of a bait and switch. They said their issue is similar to the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

Put them through.

In a moment, I was speaking with “Edie” and “Floyd,” who are both enrolled in an MBA program and work part time at a casual-dining restaurant chain that features steaks and seafood but specializes in pizza. It has over 50 locations in several states and at major airports. I will simply refer to their employer as the Restaurant.

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“I am curious about the connection between your call and the hysterical Honey, I Shrunk the Kids films. Could you explain?”

Edie replied with a question of her own: “Mr. Beaver, if you came to our restaurant, and as I am handing you the menu, I say, ‘It is impossible to read without using your cell phone QR code scanner because the font size is too small,’ what would you say or do?”

“I would ask for a readable menu. Also, I would have you tell me what is the crazy idea with a menu that even people with normal vision can’t read? If you could not produce a proper menu, I would leave.”

Floyd then said, “That’s what is happening at our restaurant and many more in the chain. Management is trying to save money on printing menus, and this is upsetting so many people! Customers are walking out, and we are losing tip money, obviously.

“Also, I may be wrong on this, but the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (opens in new tab), says that places like restaurants must be accessible to the disabled. A menu that no one can read without some optical assistance strikes me as a possible ADA violation, which I mentioned to our manager, but she blew it off!” 

They wanted to know if I could help. I would try, but I needed to verify this myself. As we have one of their restaurants in my town, I took Anne there for a late lunch.

As predicted, we were given unreadable menus. If you have ever had a problem with your computer display suddenly shrinking so small that you had to literally touch the screen with your nose to read anything, that should give you a good idea of just how small everything appeared on the menu.

Using her QR code reader was a frustrating experience. We could see why — especially older patrons — would walk out. We ordered the same things that we had there before, but felt cheated by not being able to see the new additions on the menu. Our food was acceptable but the art of cooking fish — salmon in particular — escaped this chef, as Anne’s was dry and overcooked.

Comments from Restaurant Owners and Menu Designers

I ran this bizarre “honey, I shrunk the menu” situation by PR reps at several chain restaurants that were similar to the Restaurant, as well as chefs and menu designers.

The comments ranged from, “Are they trying to go out of business?” to “Doesn’t anyone there recognize the vital role played by your menu?”

I reached the CEO of a New York Italian-style restaurant, who said, “This kind of slap-in-the-face of your guests hurts all restaurants. I would be curious as to what they tell you when you speak with them.”

Response from the Restaurant

I e-mailed corporate and in less than 24 hours heard back from “Antoine,” who stated, “Thank you for reaching out regarding your menu experience at our Bakersfield location. We regularly test new menu formats to understand guest feedback and ensure we are creating the best possible Restaurant experience.  This menu format was designed to give us flexibility during a time of rapid change in the marketplace. “We recognize that not all guests responded favorably to the temporary menu, and we will be returning to our traditional printed menus in early October.”

Did the Restaurant Violate the ADA?

The ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990. Its overall purpose (opens in new tab) is to make American society more accessible to people with disabilities. Title III of the ADA (opens in new tab) deals with Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities, which includes restaurants.

The question here is, “Would the fact that no one can read the menu without electronic or optical assistance (a magnifying glass) create an ADA violation?”

I ran this question by Southern California ADA defense attorney John Coates, who said, “What they are doing is making the menu inaccessible to everyone, not just the disabled. This was a terrible business decision and exposes them to a risk of being sued under the ADA. How high a risk is up for debate, but they should discard it at once. You just do not treat your customers this way!”

What to Do if You Think a Business Has Violated the ADA

So, what should you do if you think a business you’re patronizing has violated the ADA? The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has a form you can fill out (opens in new tab) to file a complaint.

And if a customer raises an ADA issue with a business, the business must attempt to accommodate the person's needs. In the menu situation, the restaurant owner could have asked, “May we have someone read the menu aloud to you or any sections of it that you like?” It would not have hurt to have a menu available in Braille also.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC (opens in new tab) or with FINRA (opens in new tab).

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."