The waitress, the autistic girl and the broken hamburger

Posted at 8:47 AM, Mar 28, 2013
and last updated 2013-03-28 08:47:12-04

The waitress, the autistic girl and the broken hamburger

By Becky Perlow

(CNN) — Last Sunday was just an average morning for Anna Kaye MacLean. Her sister, 7-year-old Arianna, had slept over at her house the night before and seemed to have woken up in a good mood – which is not always a given for a child with autism.

After determining that Arianna’s mood was stable enough for a day of fun activities outside the home, MacLean and her husband decided to take Arianna out to lunch, with a bonus visit to the Easter Bunny afterward. They decided to eat lunch at the Chili’s Bar and Grill in Midvale, Utah, where a beautiful thing happened – and went viral.

MacLean requested a booth facing the window, knowing it would allow her sister the freedom to move around, while also keeping her entertained by watching what was going on outside. The hostess happily obliged and said their server would be over to greet them soon. The MacLean party was going to be one of Lauren Wells’ last tables of the day, and with a bright smile, she approached the party to introduce herself and take drink orders.

Before she could even say, “Hi, welcome to Chili’s, I’m Lauren and I’ll be your waitress,” Arianna had excitedly rattled off her entire order: chocolate milk, a cheeseburger with pickles and a side of fries.

Wells delivered the food shortly, but as MacLean watched Arianna devour her French fries, she noticed that her sister wasn’t touching her cheeseburger.

“It was really, really bizarre,” MacLean told CNN in a phone interview. “Arianna loves anything in a hamburger bun. She’s obsessed with hamburgers or ‘Krabby Patties,'” an ode to one of Arianna’s favorite cartoon shows, Spongebob Squarepants.

MacLean asked her sister if she was going to eat her cheeseburger. “No, I don’t want it,” Arianna responded. “It’s broked. I need a new one that’s fixed.”

It’s a standard Chili’s policy to cut a child’s burger in half to ensure the meat is fully cooked to 170° degrees, and that’s what was “broken.”

When Wells returned to the table, she noticed Arianna was crying, and asked what was the matter.

“I know this is going to sound silly, but I need to order another cheeseburger,” MacLean told the server. Wells had a concerned look on her face and MacLean was quick to assure her that there was nothing wrong with the food. “No, no, no, this one is fine,” she explained, “But it’s cut in half and she thinks it’s broke.'”

MacLean quietly told Wells about Arianna’s autism and adamantly said she wanted to pay for the additional burger. But instead of speaking to MacLean, Wells leaned over to the little girl and addressed her directly, saying, “Ohmygosh! I brought you a broken cheeseburger! I’ll go get you a new one.”

Arianna stopped crying shortly after. MacLean, particularly moved by this, said Wells’ exchange with her sister was something she had never experienced before.

“I think most people, just out of fear and the unknown, don’t know how to interact with a kid with autism, so people will usually just keep the interaction with me.” When necessary, MacLean explains her sister’s condition.

Wells graduated from the University of Utah in May 2012 with a degree in psychology and hopes to do social work with children in the future. She also has an autistic family member, and said that while she thought Arianna might be autistic, she never assumes anything.

“I treated her the same way that [I would] any other kid who would be crying, but in her case, it was something different,” said Wells. She approached her manager Brad Cattermole, who told her they would happily switch out the broken burger for a new one.

Cattermole, too, stopped by the table and knelt down to speak with Arianna at eye level to apologize again. “You know, I heard we brought you a broken cheeseburger and I am so sorry. We’re back there making you a new one, but let me bring you out some french fries while you’re waiting.”

MacLean says one of the main reasons the exchange was so special was Wells’ and Cattermole’s decision to speak to Arianna directly.

“It was so cool because it was so intimate. [Brad] wasn’t trying to be loud or trying to make his presence know to anybody else. It was just very, very private, very intimate,” said MacLean.

“Our goal is to make guests feel special, so anything we can do to make an experience over the top of special, we give our servers the power to make the decisions to make that happen,” said Cattermole in a phone interview with CNN. “We’re trying to get each server to connect to each table individually and Lauren is amazing at connecting with our guests.”

MacLean noticed that, surprisingly, Arianna wasn’t upset about the cheeseburger. In fact, she was uncharacteristically calm about the entire situation.

“This was so bizarre because usually, that would have just led to a huge meltdown,” MacLean said, adding that a typical meltdown for Arianna could include tantrums, throwing herself on the floor and general screaming – sometimes getting so violent that she could even physically hurt herself. “I think what prevented the meltdown was that Lauren and Brad were talking to her. They weren’t talking to me, they were talking to her.”

Several minutes later, when the new, unbroken cheeseburger arrived, Arianna stared at it for a few moments before exclaiming, “Oh, I missed you!” and kissing the top of the burger bun.

MacLean quickly snapped a picture and showed it to Wells, jokingly telling her “I think we glorified the cheeseburger a little too much.” Wells, lighting up like a Christmas tree and smiling from ear to ear, asked if she could show the picture to her co-workers and manager.

“It was a cute story. I’ve never heard of a broken cheeseburger, or anything else ‘broken’ for that matter,” said Wells, explaining that she wanted to share it with her coworkers because it was such a sincere interaction.

“It was just a really, really touching experience just to see that kind of compassion and professionalism,” said MacLean. “[Lauren] could have easily just been like, ‘Okay…’ and gone to get her a new one. But she went above and beyond and I feel like everybody involved that was working that day from the hostess to the line cook, just everybody, was super, super amazing. It’s just not something that we’re used to when we have situations like that come up.”

MacLean, who works in customer service for an insurance company and recognizes good service when she sees it, decided to share her story on Chili’s Facebook page. The story quickly went viral (it has been shared near 160,000 times and liked by more than 667,000 people) touching hearts around the nation.

MacLean hopes it does more than that, though; she hopes it helps people recognize that not every kid screaming in a restaurant is an uncontrollable brat.

“While we’ve never had a personal experience like this, we know people who have been asked to leave restaurants when their kid with autism starts getting out of hand. It’s so heartbreaking,” said MacLean.

While MacLean and Arianna have never been told to leave a restaurant, they have had experiences where Arianna has gotten too overwhelmed or overstimulated at the table. Other people haven’t always understood her autism, and MacLean has chosen on her own accord to leave.

Arianna will sometimes growl while she is eating. MacLean believes that it may be a sensory thing that Arianna chooses to do, or that she may like the feel of growling while she eats her food. Fellow patrons haven’t always understood. “We’re used to it and it’s fine, but there were some people sitting next to us and they got up and moved clear across to the other side of the restaurant because it was bothering them so bad.”

The lack of understanding can be frustrating, says MacLean. When Arianna is having a meltdown, most people think she’s just being a brat and that she’s being babied. The older sister can’t deliver a disclaimer about Arianna’s autism everywhere she goes, but if people are interested she will tell them. The tone of the interaction invariably changes – but words are always directed toward MacLean and never Arianna.

This made Wells’ and Cattermole’s interactions with Arianna all the more special. “It’s so silly,” MacLean said, “but I know every person out there that has a kid with autism can relate. That broken cheeseburger can make or break our day and it made our day, and the rest of the day was great.”

MacLean admitted that she never meant for the Facebook post to go viral; rather, she wanted to recognize Wells and Cattermole for their stellar ability to connect with Arianna on a human level. “It’s not so much that we need to bring autism awareness on a customer service level,” she said, “but on a normal, typical social human being interaction. Being sensitive to people whether they have autism or they don’t.”

“I think this stuff happens more often than people recognize,” Cattermole said, “but it was Anna going on to spend 15 minutes to recognize a job well done which led to this outpouring of support.”

Wells agreed, saying that while it was definitely a table she wouldn’t forget, she never expected the response MacLean’s story received. She went on to explain that her interaction with the family didn’t seem weird or out of the ordinary to her.

“It makes me so sad that this is [considered] abnormal,” said Wells. “I was just being myself. I didn’t expect any of this; it’s been overwhelming but definitely cool.”

Chili’s parent company Brinker International Restaurants echoed Cattermole’s and Wells’ sentiments in an official statement emailed to CNN.

“Moments like the one from Midvale happen in our restaurants every day, at every table, at every Chili’s across the country. We are delighted by the shining examples in Lauren Wells, Brad Cattermole and the Midvale team, and their kind gestures that made Arianna, Anna and Alex [MacLean’s husband] feel so incredibly special. This story made our Midvale team members heroes, and we are so proud to have so many local heroes in our restaurants nationwide who make everyday moments like Arianna’s so heartwarming.”

MacLean has since read the hundreds of comment from strangers on her Facebook post, many of whom admitted they have never thought of something like that when encountering a screaming child at a restaurant. Her hope is that the next time they see a kid being a little different they might just think, “Maybe they have autism; maybe there’s something a little more than meets the eye.”

And for the record, Chili’s didn’t charge for the new, “unbroken” cheeseburger.

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