As Oak Park charges ahead toward achieving dementia-friendly status, the village has recognized Al’s Grill, 1100 Madison St., as the dementia-friendly champion of the restaurant sector.
“It’s a great feeling because it means a lot,” said Al’s General Manager Pete Mourtokokis, the son-in-law of owner Vasilios Loutos.
Perfectly situated near Belmont Village and Rush Oak Park Hospital, Al’s Grill has for years utilized compassionate practices that made it a welcoming spot for people of all abilities, especially those living with dementia.
“It’s important to us, and aside from that, it’s important just in general for businesses to know how to deal with them, how to help them,” said Mourtokokis.
The process of becoming recognized as a dementia-friendly business includes training on how to recognize signs of dementia in customers and how to best serve them.
“Then identify those businesses that have gone through the training so that people who are dealing with dementia can see, ‘Oh, that’s a safe place to go,'” said Cameron Davis, the village’s assistant director of development for customer services.
Occupational therapy doctoral student and village intern Tamzyn Mather spent time interviewing people affected by dementia, with her township intern counterpart and fellow occupational therapy doctoral student Luisa Tovar, to identify businesses already using dementia-friendly practices.
“That’s kind of how Al’s came to be,” said Mather.
Al’s Grill kept popping up during interviews in a positive way because of its reputation for taking care of those living with dementia with understanding and without condescension.
“This is something people need to know — that we have such good, kind people doing things out of the goodness of their hearts,” said Mather.
She reached out to Al’s Grill to pinpoint what exactly made Al’s such a welcoming place for people with dementia and to incorporate those methods into the industry-specific training curriculum.
“I consider Al’s the champion of the restaurant sector,” said Mather.
The village previously recognized Al’s Grill for its dedication to customer satisfaction. In 2017, the village of Oak Park’s Disability Access Commission gave the restaurant an award for going above and beyond in its service to patrons with disabilities and their families.
A woman whose husband has dementia told Mourtokokis the high level of service and attention to care at Al’s Grill prompted her to contact Mather.
“She said, ‘I’m one of the people that mentioned your name because no one does what you do and makes sure that there are best practices out there for staff to do as well,'” recounted Mourtokokis, who knows the importance of having those principles and practices in place.
“The biggest thing about people with dementia is that people think they don’t know when something is wrong,” he said. “They know something is wrong and it scares them, especially in the beginning stages.”
At Al’s Grill, the goal is to make people with dementia feel safe and at ease.
“I’ve seen people with dementia get taken advantage of. I’ve seen it firsthand,” he said. “And it makes me furious. It makes me furious.”
People with dementia may not remember that they have already paid, making them an easy target for others to double- or even triple-charge them. That does not happen at Al’s.
“No one takes money twice here, but it’s more about making the person who has dementia more comfortable,” he said.
To ensure that people with dementia don’t get confused, Al’s staff clearly writes in big letters “PAID” on each itemized bill after each transaction. Giving the person proof of payment stops them from attempting to pay multiple times. The waitstaff also doesn’t have to explain that the person already paid; correcting people with dementia could cause confusion, defensiveness and distress.
“Probably more important than anything else, if we ever see somebody who has it [and is] with somebody else, we always get their contact information,” Mourtokokis said. Al’s staff can call and alert that person in the event of an emergency.
Asking for someone’s personal information may come off as intrusive or alarming if phrased wrong. To illustrate the correct way to ask, Mourtokokis used a previous experience where he asked the wife of a man he knew to have dementia.
“Once he brought his wife in, I said, ‘Oh, we take care of him here. You don’t have to worry. Is there anyone we can contact if he needs something? He’s been coming here a lot more often,'” he said.
The woman willingly gave Mourtokokis her number.
“If you make it about their safety, no one is going to say no,” he said. “It’s all about the words you choose and how you say them.”
Mourtokokis has never faced any problems after asking for contact information.
“The other thing about getting someone’s contact information — God forbid someone gets lost, but it happens and at least you know where they were,” he said.
Al’s can also aid people looking for loved ones by giving them the time when the missing person arrived and left the restaurant.
Too much choice can also overwhelm people with dementia, especially on large menus at restaurants. Al’s Grill works around that. The waitstaff knows the usual orders of the grill’s regular customers.
“For example, one of the guys who comes in here has raisin toast and a cranberry juice or sometimes a breakfast sandwich. Those are the only two things he orders,” said Mourtokokis. “So when we go up to him, we say three things: ‘Would you like to have your raisin toast today, your breakfast sandwich or something else?'”
Customers with dementia usually stick to what they’ve previously ordered without feeling steered.
The village’s next dementia-friendly action committee meeting, Feb. 5 at 8:30 a.m., falls on Mourtokokis’s day off.
“I’m going. It takes me an hour to get here from home, but that’s worth going to on my day off,” he said.
The dementia-friendly practices and principles utilized at Al’s are applicable to people of all types and abilities.
“If you only do them for a certain kind of people, then you’re excluding that maybe no one else has it that you don’t know,” Mourtokokis said. “If you keep those best practices for everybody, then you’re at least doing the best you can to help anyone you meet, anyone who feels lost.”