Blindskills, Inc. - Publisher of DIALOGUE Magazine
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by Toni Lechowicz, Schenectady, New York
One evening in 1993, someone handed Lou Fioritto a braille menu that changed his life. At the time, Fioritto and his wife, Joyce, were about to have dinner at Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Fioritto was fascinated--not just by the content, but also by the way the menu was put together. "I'd never seen one before and was very interested in how it was done." He told Joyce, "I would have given it a table of contents (and) put it on smaller paper with a plastic comb binding to make it easier to handle." Joyce said, "Why don't we do it?"
Lou, who had worked for the IRS and the corporate world for over 25 years, had been laid off by a business forms company and was now looking for work. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that producing braille material as a business venture was a sound idea.
Two retired executives from Service Corporation helped him set up a business plan. The Ohio Rehabilitation Commission for the Blind provided some money to buy equipment. Lou and Joyce borrowed the rest of the money they needed to get started. Today their company, Braille Works, is a significant producer of materials for blind and print-disabled persons with over 7,500 customers in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
In the early days, the business occupied the basement, dining and living room of their suburban Cleveland home, with the couple working long hours--whatever it took to get the job done right. The company started by producing braille materials for non-profit organizations serving the blind. Breaking into the business of restaurant menus required time and patience. Lou and a friend went to the public library and photocopied pages containing the names and telephone numbers of corporate offices from THOMAS' RESTAURANT CHAIN DIRECTORY, which Joyce recorded so Lou could call them. Responses to those early calls were not encouraging. Then, they got a break in the form of a rush order from Applebee's. "We got the order, because the company they hired did not produce the menus on time. In fact, that's how we got a lot of our braille menu business," Lou recalls.
"Applebee's wanted 800 menus in twenty days and we weren't sure we could afford to buy the braille paper. But we did it! We had only one braille embosser, no burster, and a hand-cranked binding machine."
Despite these limitations, those early braille menus featured a table of contents, an acetate cover with comb binding, and smaller 8-1/2 by 11-inch paper. The smaller paper size is easier to stand up in a menu rack, takes up less room on the table, and is cheaper to ship.
One day while reading one of his own menus at a restaurant, Lou noticed the menu was hard to search and skim by categories. As a result, he started putting a blank line before and after every new heading; for example, "Chicken Entrees." Blank lines and indentations were also added to set off individual items. This made it easier for braille readers to cruise the choices on the menu while engaging in table talk with other diners.
Today Braille Works has Bob Evans, Outback Steakhouse, Cracker Barrel, Ruby Tuesday's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden and TGI Friday's among their many customers. At first, braille menus were only about ten double-sided pages, but with the increase of menu choices today, the size has grown to sixty or seventy pages--100 if calorie counts are included.
In 1995, Braille Works added large print. It is placed in the same volume as the braille menu, positioned in the front on white paper using one font for easy reading by low vision readers.
In 1997, Braille Works received a major contract from the National Council of Independent Living for cassette narration and production. Soon, Braille Works expanded into many other audio contracts. Today, audio and text CDs have replaced cassettes for the distribution of conference materials, insurance documents, government agency brochures, and credit card and bank statements.
In 1996, the Fiorittos moved to the Tampa Bay area and built a house with the business using two rooms and one side of their garage. In 2001, they built another house with a 1,800-square-foot building adjacent to it for their increasing workload. By 2007, there were eleven employees to move into a 3,500-square-foot structure built on commercial property. In 2012, the employee count was up to 53, and a 9,000-square-foot building was added nearby to provide space for further expansion.
Having taken full advantage of the proprietor's option to locate the business for his convenience, Lou walks the two-tenths of a mile to and from work with his white cane every day. These days, he works roughly a six-hour shift, focusing on sales and management. Joyce works 2 or 3 days a week. The employees are grouped into teams for braille, large print audio/text CD's, printing, binding, and shipping.
Braille Works uses a variety of marketing strategies including blogs, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Because there is more competition today, as the price of production equipment falls and potential demand keeps rising, Lou and his sales staff sometimes meet in person with prospective clients on a one-to-one basis. Lou says, "We want to keep up with the constantly evolving technology focusing on more business from government contracts, sales, financial institutions, our repeat customers and, of course, restaurants."
The company does not employ the Free Matter privilege when ordering pallets of braille paper or shipping out completed jobs. Lou says, "Free Matter for the Blind is a privilege for us to receive materials for the blind; I don't want to abuse the law. We are not an agency for the blind. The only exception is when Braille Works produces menus for the Schwan Food Company and sends them directly to blind customers. In this case Schwan's signed an agreement taking full responsibility if liability issues with Free Matter should arise."
Lou feels thankful and blessed at the dramatic success of the business with its steady growth over the years. But he doesn't appear to be taking continued success for granted. A customer found a mistake when receiving 600 large print menus. Lou replaced the whole job immediately at no expense to the customer. He concludes, "This is how we run our business. We treat people the way we want to be treated, always keeping in mind Braille Works' trademarked motto, 'Making The World A More Readable Place.'"
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