By Kayiu Wong, Pasadena Star News
Mason Fessenden’s favorite hometown restaurant is Rudy’s Mexican Food in Monrovia — the 17 year-old has been dining there his whole life and considers the family-run business a second home.
“The people are like family and the food is delicious,” Fessenden said. “There’s no better thing than that!”
But, for the nearly two decades he has eaten there, he has never touched or read Rudy’s menu.
Fessenden is fully blind and relies on the voices of his parents and his younger brother to know which appetizers and entrees are available when the family dines out.
“I’ve asked restaurants if they have Braille menus, and the answer I always get is no,” Fessenden said.
So, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Fessenden started a company called Clarity Menus & More to create Braille menus and change the way restaurants serve visually impaired customers.
“I’m taking the no’s to the next level by transcribing menus into Braille and helping the restaurants out for free on my part,” he said.
Since the company’s launch in January, Fessenden has created menus for four restaurants in Monrovia: Bella Sera Trattoria, Cafe Mundial, The Diplomat Eatery & Tavern and, of course, Rudy’s.
Owner Rutilio “Rudy” Castrellon said he is “very proud” to have one of Fessenden’s first Braille menus.
“It’s not something many restaurants have,” Castrellon said in a phone interview. “We are beginning to present the menu to people who need to use it and that feels good. Plus, we’ve grown up with Mason after all these years. Now, he’s part of us even more.”
Menus are just the start though. Fessenden hopes to produce Braille translations for spas, nail salons and clothing stores.
“The word clarity (in Clarity Menus & More) means clarification on all kinds of different things, with the word ‘more’ meaning spreading out to different areas, not just restaurants,” he said.
A rising senior at Temple City High School, Fessendendecided to start his company when the school’s visually impaired program assigned him to find a job that can better the local community. He came up with Clarity Menus & More as his project and is being paid by a grant-funded program at Temple City Unified to continue his work.
Fessenden recently finished a Braille menu for a cafe and wine bar in Northern California and is in the process of making one for Frooza, an ice cream shop in Monrovia. Each menu he has done so far has taken several weeks, he said.
“Rudy’s [menu] was the deadliest because it’s the longest one I’ve done,” Fessenden said. “What I’ve learned is that if restaurants could give me their menus in a Word document, that would be much faster for me to translate. In the olden days, for the first four menus I mean, my brother and his friends read the menu to me line by line.”
He would then type out what he heard into his BrailleNote Touch to reproduce the menu into Braille. He even adds star symbols in Braille to denote gluten-free options on the menus.
The hours of listening, typing and translating have been completely worth it though, he said. “I’m happy I get to do this for people, and I’m sure the restaurants are happy with my commitment.”
Although he is planning to expand beyond Braille menus, Fessenden is purposefully focusing first on the mom-and-pop shops of his hometown.
“I love Monrovia! The whole town is warm and welcoming. It feels like family when you’re here,” Fessenden said.
Fessenden’s parents, Martha and Trevor, moved to Monrovia in 2000 when he was born.
“This is his town. Everybody knows him here,” Martha Fessenden said.
When her son was born three months premature, doctors told Martha that aside from being fully blind, Mason Fessenden would also not be able to walk, talk or read Braille.
Today, Fessenden spends his free time surfing, snow skiing, performing in musical productions and tutoring Temple City High students in Spanish — a language he taught himself fluently starting at the age of 3.
“He had a lot of things thrown at him when he was a very young child, and he bypassed all of them,” Martha Fessenden said. “He’s done amazing. He’s very, very positive and never gets negative about his blindness.”
Mason Fessenden especially loves to sing and play piano.
He is part of the Johnny Mercer Young Men’s Choir at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles and takes voice lessons at Centre Stage in Monrovia.
He also starred in Centre Stage’s production of “Annie” last year alongside a full cast of sighted performers and will be singing in two competitions this year with The Music Center and The Great American Songbook Foundation.
Although post-high school plans aren’t fully formed, Fessenden is certain that pursuing music and continuing Clarity Menus & More will be part of them. As he transitions his company, he expects to start charging for his services.
“I feel like I’m on this little emotional roller coaster of growing up and now that I also have my own company, it really puts a smile on my face, and I’m even more excited for what’s to come,” he said.
Restaurants and businesses interested in Fessenden’s Braille menus and translations can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.