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Warned but Not Forgotten, Tacopocalypse Sued for ADA Violations

This is one example of a case where not biting the hand that feeds isn’t true. After being warned numerous times and claiming to eventually fix their ADA issues but not following through, the popular food paradise Tacopocalypse was finally sued friday. Read on to find out how it could have been avoided…

The owner of East Village hotspot Tacopocalypse has failed after more than a year to make the restaurant’s front doors wheelchair-accessible, despite claims that he would do so, according to a lawsuit filed Friday.

A lawyer for Disability Rights Iowa filed the federal lawsuit against Tacopocalypse claiming the two doors letting customers in have steps without ramps for wheelchairs, a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The 1990 civil rights law requires businesses to make accommodations to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities. A lawyer for Tacopocalypse owner Sam Auen said the chef has been in talks with the group and plans to put in a concrete ramp.


REVIEW: Burrito a hit during lunch visit
CHEF: Sam Auen is a force of nature
The federally funded group filed the lawsuit on behalf of one of its employees, Emmanuel Smith, a West Des Moines resident who uses a motorized wheelchair because of a bone disorder, according to the complaint. Smith, an advocate and benefits planner for the group, has been unable to get inside the restaurant since it moved to its current East Fifth Street location because of the inclines at each door.

“The only way for Plaintiff to obtain food from the restaurant is by placing an order from Tacopocalypse by telephone and then wait outdoors, weather permitting, of the restaurant to either flag down an employee or again telephone once he is outdoors to pick up the food order,” lawyer Cynthia A. Miller wrote.

In a phone interview Monday, Smith, 25, said he’s a fan of the restaurant’s bulgogi taco, a Korean recipe for marinated beef.

The West Des Moines native and Drake University graduate was excited last year to learn about the restaurant’s move to a building near his workplace, but was quickly disappointed by the access issue, he said. It’s led to frustrations, like when a friend came to visit and wanted to try the much-hyped restaurant, he said.

Emmanuel Smith an events and benefits planner with
Emmanuel Smith an events and benefits planner with Disability Rights Iowa is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against Tacopocalypse. (Photo: Special to the Register)
“It’s a very popular name here around Des Moines and certainly a lot of people my age swear by it, so it was unfortunate,” he said. “The East Village is taking off and it’s really adding to the flavor of my hometown … and that’s an exciting thing, but I just want to make sure that people with disabilities are part of that progression and are able to enjoy things that every other young person in this town is able to enjoy.”

Smith has used a wheelchair throughout his life, he said. He was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as brittle bones disease, that leaves him with an increased vulnerability to broken bones, among other complications.

Disability Rights Iowa has been in “ongoing” communication with Auen since the restaurant opened at its new location in June 2014, according to the lawsuit. One door is accessible only by a black wood step that’s more than 4 inches tall, according to the lawsuit. The second door has a smaller step up, but is still higher than half an inch.

“The defendant has been given advance notice its facility contains accessibility barriers through a letter … and ongoing communications with the owner, Sam Auen, prior to the initiation of this suit,” Miller wrote. “Despite being given notice and expressing the intent to put in a concrete ramp, the Defendant has failed to take any significant steps, other than symbolic, to remedy the discriminatory barriers at its facility.”

The lawsuit asks for a judge to order Auen to modify the entrances, as well as pay attorneys fees to Disability Rights Iowa.

TacopocalypseBuy Photo
Tacopocalypse (Photo: Grant Rodgers/The Register)
Des Moines lawyer Loyd Ogle, who represents Tacopocalypse, said Auen made efforts to correct the problem after hearing concerns from the advocacy group last year. Auen purchased a model of ramp that was specifically recommended by Disability Rights Iowa, he said. But the ramp was designed for residential use and didn’t meet city building codes.

“It sounds to me like this is a very simple matter that we should be able to resolve,” he said. “We’re disappointed that it came to this and we’ll certainly be working to get matters resolved.”

Auen wrote in a Facebook post at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday that he intends to install a ramp.

“I would like to assure all of you out there that I have always supported the rights of everyone to participate and have access to all things public equally, and that I am still working towards that end at Tacopocalypse,” he wrote. “Our ramp will be built as soon as we can get things sorted out, and until that time our staff will continue to do as they were trained and offer help to those who are having difficulty accessing our restaurant.”

Another post on the Tacopocalypse Facebook page said wheelchair accessibility to the building has been a problem for other tenants over the past decade.

The building that houses Tacopocalypse at 407 E. Fifth St. is owned by Kirk Blunck, a Des Moines architect whose buildings have struggled with a history of city building code violations. Disability Rights Iowa Executive Director Jane Hudson said she believes that there might be more ADA violations inside the restaurant, and that the space should be reviewed by an investigator.

The group, whose headquarters are in the East Village, recently recognized five businesses in the neighborhood for being fully ADA-compliant, including Blu Thai, Scenic Route Bakery, Jimmy John’s, Quinton’s Bar and Deli and Gong Fu Tea, Hudson said. The recognition was part of a 25th anniversary celebration for the ADA, a signature political accomplishment for former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat.

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