When Catherine Duke was asked to remove her 2-year-old daughter’s shoes at Panera Bread because they squeaked, she was shocked.
The mother from Savannah, Ga., goes to the restaurant often with her toddler, who has a developmental disorder. The shoes, which are orthopedic, have helped little Emma Duke learn to walk, ABC News reports.
“The employee and the manager knew what we’d been going through with Emma because she and my wife go there so frequently," Stephen Duke, Emma’s father, said. “They knew why she had the shoes, so that’s the thing that shocked us the most.”
Catherine Duke says she explained to the assistant manager of the Panera Bread why the shoes squeaked, but that she didn’t seem to care. She was asked to remove the toddler’s shoes or leave.
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"We weren't welcome with the shoes. It was very blatant," Duke told WTOC about the Jan. 2 incident.
The Dukes have spent more than a year with doctors from across the country to determine Emma’s diagnosis – yet the family has yet to receive a conclusive answer on what has caused the 2-year-old to have developmental delays.
“She just started to try to walk at 23 months, which is very late, so the orthopedist recommended special shoes to her for better ankle support,” Stephen Duke said. “The shoes squeak as an incentive when she walks heel to toe, so she’ll hear it and know that she’s walking properly.”
After the incident, Duke contacted Panera Bread’s corporate headquarters, which offered an in-person apology and a written statement. “As you would expect, Panera Bread does not tolerate discrimination of any kind. The last thing we would want to do is make anyone feel unwelcome,” the company’s statement reads. “We understand from our franchisee that Ms. Duke has been assured that she and her family are always welcome at Panera and her concerns have been addressed.”
The company also said it would hold a fundraiser to help with Emma’s medical bills. “We’re not expecting a handout by any means, but we do appreciate the fundraiser because Emma’s bills for all the specialists and treatments are enormous,” Catherine Duke said.
Stephen Duke says he “probably” won’t return to Panera, but his wife might act differently.
“She was friends with some of the people who work there, and I think she’ll probably go back, although I don’t know if as frequently,” he said.