These Disabled Veterans Hired Themselves After No One Did

May. 11, 2018 / By

Above: 4th and Olive owner and veteran Dan Tapia with his child. Photo courtesy of 4th and Olive.

Behind big glass windows and situated squarely in a dining room of neatly-made tables and high, drafty ceilings, Dan Tapia is combating workplace discrimination and a lack of jobs for veterans all on one corner of Long Beach.

Aptly named for its location, 4th and Olive is an innovative restaurant staffed entirely by veterans, all hired by Tapia who is a Navy veteran himself and a former quadriplegic.

Tapia’s service in the Navy left him with bone spurs, stress fractures, and pressure in his spinal column.

“I went in to do a surgery to remove two discs and fuse three vertebrae and I woke up from the surgery and I couldn’t use my arms or legs at all,” Tapia said. “It took me about nine months to really walk again, so it changed everything.”

After regaining the use of his arms and legs, Tapia went back to work as a sommelier and bartender in an upscale restaurant in Beverly Hills. He was ultimately pushed out of the restaurant and lost his job, he said, due to his reliance on a cane when he can’t alternate between sitting and standing comfortably.

“It was probably the most emotionally debilitating day of my life,” Tapia said. “I mean, next to losing family members, but as far as a personal blow, it was horrible just being discarded like that.”

Studies show that U.S. veterans with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be denied work or face discrimination in the workplace than veterans without disabilities. Vets face disabilities that range from physical limitations to mental conditions, but Tapia tries to accommodate any veteran who wants to work hard.

“I have a staff of people that show up on time, they don’t complain, and they have great work ethic,” Tapia said. “I’ve worked in restaurants since I was a teenager and I’m 39 now, so I’m getting older, and I’ve never worked for a crew that is this tight, at this level.”

4th and Olive was Tapia’s resolution and ultimatum, a promise to himself to create change in his own life and in those of others. He cooks, hires and plays by his own rules now, a triumph over systematic discrimination in a country that often touts its patriotic zeal.

“I had a lot of anger and that was making me feel pretty shitty, so I decided to take that energy and build something with it rather than just feeling so destructive with it,” Tapia said. “I have my own restaurant so I can sit or stand whenever I damn well feel like it.”

Photo: 4th and Olive

With a population of about 18,000 vets, the Veteran Affairs hospital, and the former home to a massive Navy base, Long Beach remains a geographic-canvas for uplifting those who have served. Veterans are an underserved and underrepresented demographic in Long Beach, something that Tapia tackles with his restaurant and in his personal life.

“Since we’ve been open we’ve pulled four [homeless] vets off the streets and even if they’re not still working with us we got them in programs,” Tapia said. “Maybe they can’t work at a level that we need at our [restaurant], but we help them find transitional housing, job-training, or vocational rehabilitation.”

Tapia finds a common identity in his staff, a team that doesn’t take open doors for granted and puts the success of the business first, which, Tapia said, is largely driven by his employees’ involvement with the armed forces.

“Generally speaking, we hire more for attitude here,” Tapia said. “I’d rather hire someone for attitude than skill or experience, because you can have someone that’s very skilled but is a pain-in-the-ass to work with, but if you hire for the attitude and work ethic and teach them a skill, you’ve got somebody forever.”

In the same vein, not every veteran can handle a high-stress work environment like a bustling restaurant, and this encourages Tapia to continue to grow his business to make room for more veterans on his payroll.

“We just secured some land and we’re going to start growing our own produce,” Tapia said. “It’s a couple more vets that we can hire and those veterans not able to work in a high-anxiety place like a restaurant, can grow carrots.”

Transitioning into civilian life is often hard for a veteran accustomed to battle, often struggling to feel at home in many workplaces. Those working the restaurant find a rare kindness and that they have not experienced at other jobs, including veteran Chris Shouse. He was first hired to bring some color to 4th and Olive’s walls with his artwork.

Long Beach has many sprawling murals with bright colors and abstract lines spanning long ally walls and business corners, but Shouse wanted to bring that art inside and allow guests to dine with the city’s history.

“I wanted to tie in veterans with Port life and Long Beach history,” Shouse said, reflecting on his mural made of old-school-tattoo style art and iconic sea images of anchors and the Queen Mary. 

Above, veteran Chris Shouse with his mural at 4th and Olive. Photo: Erin Dobrzyn.

“I always have cleverness in [my paintings] so I used the octopus pouring his own wine…I like the playfulness and that’s what I was going for.”

Tapia had more in mind for Shouse than just commissioning his artistic abilities. Shouse has been a waiter at the restaurant for almost a year, where he’ seen more visibility to veterans’ struggle in regaining footing in the workforce and facing discrimination.

“We’ve got a bunch of military people here who are used to being told to do the impossible,” Shouse said. “We figure it out.”

Initiatives to employ veterans are common heard nationally and locally; meeting varying degrees of success. Tapia has noticed that communities beyond the Long Beach area are looking to his restaurant as blueprint, and he sees this as confirmation that his mission is really taking off.

“I’ve had a lot of people who are not in the restaurant [business] necessarily, but all over the country have called; in fact I just helped somebody today find resources for hiring veterans,” Tapia said.

Even with growing acclaim for its menu, Tapia knows that continued success depends on the visibility of his cause.

“We still have a bigger overall mission,” Tapia said. “ I need everybody in LA County, everybody in the country to see as much as we can that hiring veterans is not only not as risky as you think it is, it’s actually far more beneficial than people think it is.”

Each night, as street lights flicker on and traffic dies down, the hyper-static of the city begins to quiet and Tapia and his dedicated staff get ready to welcome diners into the restaurant with its warmly lit corners and glowing candles reflecting off the floor-to-ceiling windows.

One table along the far wall, however, is particularly quiet and somber. It’s the “Missing Man Table,” and it’s draped in a black flag. It serves as a promise to the service men and women who never returned home that they are not forgotten. An empty wine glass toasts to the sacrifice that many men and women made for their country and a fresh rose whispers a thank you.

The ‘Missing Man Table’ at 4th and Olive. Photo: Erin Dobrzyn.

On the back of every menu is a written homage to men and women killed in combat, and every dish that is served in the restaurant is a promise to them that their memory will be honored through the work that Tapia and his staff devote themselves to.

Tapia believes that his restaurant should be a safe space for his employees and for his guests, a place of sanctuary, fine wine, and fresh food. He wants guests to check their proverbial baggage at the door and allow 4th and Olive to silence the rest of the world for an hour or so.

“I want to break bread with you, share a table with you, clean up after you,” Tapia said. “We are going to put something in front of you that’s going to nourish your body and your soul.”

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Erin Dobrzyn

Erin Dobrzyn graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. She has worked with NBC Los Angeles as an investigative journalist intern and is an international poet laureate. When she’s not writing, Erin also works as a veterinary nurse.