When Daniel Tapia started working at one of the nation’s most recognizable restaurants under one of the nation's most respected chefs, the Navy veteran felt a sense of pride. Despite his use of a cane — necessary after being hit by a car while riding his bike — Tapia had made it to the part of the food world he most respected.
Until his boss, the chef for whom Tapia was so excited to work, noticed his cane. According to Tapia, the chef told him he didn’t want customers to “look at a cripple while they eat.”
“I got a call from HR, saying they saw the cane, insisting I need a doctor’s note — they wanted to know the cause, the severity, everything,” Tapia says. “And immediately I was taken aback because they wanted private medical information. It was not only illegal but I had to print out the fucking ADA website and hand it to them.”
But it was 2013 and during the government shutdown, and the Equal Employment Opportunity and Compliance (EEOC) department had temporarily shut its doors. By the time the EEOC offices returned to life, Tapia found himself suspended at the restaurant.
“I realized I didn’t want to go back because, let’s be honest, they’re going to always view me as a cripple,” Tapia says. “Where was I gonna go if I stayed? If they treated me like this then, what would be the difference in the future? So I was done.”
The experience “lit a fire under [his] ass.” Tapia decided to let the experience inform a new mission. And so he built a restaurant of his own, Fourth & Olive, in Long Beach’s East Arts Village District.
The restaurant serves Alsatian food, with Salt’s Cure alumnus Alex McGroarty creating what is perhaps Long Beach’s best bacon, bratwurst and boudin blanc. But Fourth & Olive's most impressive accomplishment might be something harder to see immediately: Tapia will prioritize hiring veterans and the disabled.
“As much I hate admitting it, people see veterans differently — not just disabled veterans but veterans as a whole,” Tapia says. When he was discharged from the Navy after serving for more than six years, he was injured but had not yet had the accident that left him in need of a cane. His experience trying to find work as a vet left an impression. “Employers don’t want to hire them. They’re afraid because it’s a different culture, someone who experienced something they didn’t. They view veterans as disabled, whether they are or they’re not. Those who are disabled are fully capable, but you just have to go to bat for them a bit different.”
“We all know that our society has developed a not-so-pretty picture of vets,” says Alvin Stams II, one of the kitchen staff members who hails from the Air Force. “In previous jobs, I was given the choice of my job or my [doctor's] appointment. Just that choice. So I missed quite a few appointments. Here, management takes into consideration upcoming appointments for us, which allows us to continue our treatment at the VA; which relieves a lot of stress off us vets; which makes us better employees.”
“I enjoy working here because we incorporate what it's like to be part of a team and we hold ourselves to a higher standard because being part of the military, we know about integrity, honor and loyalty,” says Jennifer Contreras, one of the bartenders and an Army vet.
These standards are, according to Tapia, the same needed to be a good employee. He sees an overlap in the demands of restaurant work and military work.
“Ultimately, if we’re doing well in this restaurant, that reflects onto the outside,” Tapia says. “If they see us kicking ass with vets working hard, they’re going to want to hire vets, too. And that’s the endgame: for me to run out of veterans to hire and I have to go back to civilians.”
743 E. Fourth St., Long Beach; (562) 269-0731, fourthandolive.com.