Reporting Bill Hudson
EAGAN, Minn. (WCCO) — To Christian Young and Nengi Clement, it’s the best job they’ve ever had.
For a person living with autism, jobs can be hard to find.
So when the two young men landed part-time employment at a Little Caesars pizza restaurant in Eagan, they quickly learned the value of earning a paycheck. For a few hours a day they were the store’s human advertisement.
Initially, they would put on a sandwich board bearing the company’s name and wave at passing cars along Diffley Road.
“Just waving at people,” Clement said. “I use two hands. One for leaving and the other when they’re coming in.”
It wasn’t long before the store was informed that the business-attracting actions were against city code. Eagan has an ordinance prohibiting off-premise advertising by local businesses.
“I think it’s so ridiculous, very ridiculous,” Young said.
Not wanting to be issued a citation, the pizza restaurant moved the two young men closer to their actual store, and into the parking lot of an Eagan mall. But it was informed that also violated the city’s advertising code.
For the store’s operators, the last straw was when Young and Clement were greeting customers, wearing their T-shirts and standing outside its front door.
The city’s code enforcement technician once again told the franchisee to stop.
“It’s very frustrating,” explains Little Caesars director of operations, Jim Amero.
Amero said the restaurant is just trying to give two young men with autism the chance for meaningful work.
“Even from the simple standpoint of holding the door open and greeting people, or helping people go to their cars with pizza,” Amero said. “We’re being told we can’t do that.”
Eagan’s spokesperson, Tom Garrison, defends the ordinance as necessary to prevent traffic distractions and advertising clutter. Garrison contends the ordinance is being enforced fairly, without exceptions.
“That’s the general intent, to not have the clutter of additional signage out everywhere and to not have people feel intimidated in any way,” Garrison said.
Some businesses do employ people to stand along roadways dressed in costume to help draw attention to nearby stores.
Garrison explains there’s a fine line between actual advertising and free expression. So long as the display doesn’t include a company logo or name, the action is protected by the Supreme Court as free speech, and there’s nothing the city can do to stand in the way.
Little Caesars is exploring options which could include putting the two young men in pizza slice costumes as a way around the ordinance.
“I just want my job back,” Young said.