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Race reactions and other restaurant nightmares of the week

Who said the industry is color blind? On the other hand, there are parties saying it's crooked.
peter romeo blog

Color blindness is a good thing for public outlets like restaurants, but ingrained racial attitudes clearly sapped sound business judgment this week. Instances of prejudice—one an obvious lapse, the other undertaken to make a point—kicked up controversy the industry didn’t need.

Yet a noble effort to foster change didn’t work so well, either. A Pittsburgh restaurateur continues to be bullied for daring to question the status quo.

Here’s her tale of woe, along with the week’s other restaurant nightmares.

That again?

Fifteen or 20 years ago, family restaurant chains were routinely walloped by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for indulging prejudice in their operating procedures. Among the practices that drew heat (and hefty financial penalties) was a requirement that some patrons pay before being served their food, a precaution against dine-and-dash shenanigans. Curiously, the policy was seldom applied to all-white parties.

The crackdown by EEOC seemed to put an end to the racial profiling. Then the customer of an IHOP in Auburn, Maine, reported what he’d witnessed during a recent visit to the restaurant with his parents.

Avery Gagne recounted in a Facebook post that a group of black teenagers at a nearby table were informed they’d have to pay upfront instead of after they ate. Gagne and his parents were outraged, and indicated as much. A server explained that management was trying to protect the establishment from walkouts.

The posting ignited a storm of protest, prompting the restaurant to close last Thursday for staff retraining. Manager Melvin Escobar reportedly posted an apology for the restaurant’s practice on Facebook, but the page has apparently been taken down.

Whites-only pricing

The controversy ignited by the racial pricing of Saartj continues to rage, though the New Orleans popup shut down March 4. The restaurant described its two-tiered rate system as a social experiment, though some viewed the approach as outright reverse prejudice.

As the Nigerian outlet explains on its website, which lives on, all patrons were charged $12 for their meals, but the staff “recommended” to white customers that they pay $30. The extra $18 was then distributed to poorer New Orleans residents of color, according to the posting.

The racial variation in the pricing reflects the difference in the household income of whites and persons of color in New Orleans, it adds.

Proprietor Tunde Wey told the media that 80% of white patrons opted to pay the $30, but he did not disclose the exact figure of how much money was redistributed.

Rocks in the slung mud

The special City Council election is over for Pittsburgh restaurateur Sonja Finn, who took a trouncing in the March 6 vote. Now she’s learning the aftereffects of challenging a candidate who had the backing of a major restaurant union.

The day before the election, the local Service Employees International Union distributed a statement that accused Finn of stealing employees’ tips. It noted that Finn paid $50,000 in fines to the Department of Labor for practices that all parties agree were ended by June 2017. The unstated message: Finn was a crook who shouldn’t be elected.

She wasn’t: 64% of voters chose her opponent.

Finn does not refute that she was fined by DOL, but says it was because of an inadvertent transgression. She had replaced tipping in her Dinette restaurant with all-inclusive pricing, and had set up a pool for servers to share a portion of their gratuities with back-of-house staffers. Finn said she did not know until being hit with the DOL sanctions that the Obama administration had ruled tip sharing to be illegal in 2016.

She’s worried the public has not absorbed the full story and will instead just avoid Dinette so as not to enrich a person of questionable ethics. The real victims, she has suggested, are the employees.

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