It was after midnight when Ariel Wade rolled into the drive-through at the 24-hour White Castle, one block from the State Capitol. Wade rolled away "madder than fish grease" after the staff refused to hand over any burgers.
The reason: She was riding in an electric mobility scooter. The drive-throughs are for licensed motor vehicles only. White Castle says it's a safety measure that's standard in the industry, to keep pedestrians from getting creamed by cars.
But Wade, who uses the scooter because of degenerative arthritis in her back, says the policy discriminates against people who don't or can't drive. The White Castle dining room closed at 11 p.m., so she had no choice but to order her Slyders in the drive-through.
Complimentary burgers and consoling words from the district manager the next day haven't stopped Wade from taking her gripe to a law firm that advocates for the disabled. Her drive-through dispute now could test a relatively uncharted area of disability law.
"You can try to butter me up all you want to. Free meals ain't going to work," said Wade, 37. "I want to make sure they don't discriminate against another person."
The Minnesota Disability Law Center is weighing whether to take on Wade's case, said Justin Page, a staff attorney. It's an "unsettled" area of law, with few cases testing the issue, he said. But on first glance, the policy strikes Page as inconsistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"I would argue if you're open 24 hours, you need to be accessible and provide accessibility 24 hours," Page said.
The confrontation on Rice Street pits the venerable 418-restaurant straight-edged hamburger chain based in Columbus, Ohio, against a onetime exotic dancer from New Orleans who until recently worked selling bingo tickets at a St. Paul bar.
Wade uses her Pride Mobility Celebrity X scooter (top speed: 6 mph) to go just about anywhere. She rides it in the street when the sidewalks are blocked or unplowed, which is legal under a seven-year-old state law. Unlike motorcycles and motor scooters, mobility scooters aren't licensed or titled in Minnesota, and the law doesn't give them the same rights to share the roadway as bicycles.
Nevertheless, Wade's scooter has a headlight and a tail-light, and the squads just drive by when she's moving down the street.
After getting off work on June 4, Wade and a close friend, Anthony Shaver, set off from her home near Payne Avenue. By the time they arrived at the White Castle, the dining room was closed, as is usual for six hours every night. A sign in the window beckoned, "Open 24 hours, because cravings don't sleep."
The drive-through was deserted, Wade said, so she approached the intercom, with 20 bucks to spend.
"The guy that was answering the phone told me I had to leave the parking lot because they could not serve me because I was not in a motorized vehicle," she said.
But she was, she argued. Wade called the toll-free number for food orders and managed to talk her way through to customer service.
Still hungry, Wade and Shaver made their way to the McDonald's on Marion Street. Once again, the dining room was closed, so they went to the drive-through. This time, they got their fast food, but it came with a warning not to try it again.
Courtney Henry, franchise owner for the McDonald's on Marion Street, offered this statement: "In the best interest of our customers' safety, we only allow motor vehicles in the drive-thru that are authorized to drive on streets and highways. We're sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused one of our customers."
Jamie Richardson, White Castle System Inc.'s vice president for corporate relations, said the company feels "sorry that it was an unfortunate incident for her" but that the free meal was offered as a chance to explain the company policy, which he said is similar to "virtually all the other chains."
"When folks do approach [the drive-through], not in a vehicle, our policy is not to serve folks," Richardson said. "It really is about safety first."
"Candidly it can be kind of an unsafe zone, with cars coming around quicker than they should," he said. "If we were to set aside safety, we would be doing a disservice to the millions of people coming through."
Wade thinks that those policies do a disservice to everybody without a car. She's not interested in money for her inconvenience. She wants the fast-food giants to serve every customer, regardless of mode of transport, whenever they're open.
"They pissed off the wrong person," she said.