Some businesses fail to see the color of money

WILEY A. HALL

May 27, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

For breakfast at Denny's in Annapolis yesterday, I had a double order of French toast, smothered in butter and maple syrup, and a side order of bacon.

I had a bowl of fruit and a plate of hash browns. I had three cups of coffee and a glass of orange juice.

I could have had more: Denny's Grand Slam breakfast offers all you can eat for $3.99. But, of course, I am on a diet.

And, oh, yes! I got all of that, plus service with a smile.

Kathy, my waitress, hovered about my table, springing forward to freshen my coffee cup after nearly every sip, it seemed. A busboy kept refilling my water glass.

Periodically, people whom I took to be supervisors would wander over to my table.

"Is everything all right, sir?"

"Yes, everything is fine."

"You're sure now?"

"Oh, yes, quite sure. Thank you."

A companion and I were the only blacks in the restaurant at the time and we got the royal treatment. But then, the Denny's in Annapolis may have felt it had something to prove.

The restaurant got a major black eye last week when six black members of the U.S. Secret Service sued the restaurant and its parent company, TW Services Inc., for racial discrimination.

The officers were part of a uniformed detail assigned to protect President Clinton during a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy on April Fools Day.

The 21-member unit had stopped at the West Street restaurant for breakfast before continuing on to the site of the president's speech.

Six blacks on the unit sat at one table. Their white colleagues sat nearby.

For an hour, it is alleged, the six blacks watched their white colleagues get second and third helpings. They watched groups of whites enter, give orders and receive food. They complained. They pleaded. But still no food.

Finally, they told the restaurant manager that they would lodge a complaint with the company's regional office. The manager, Tom Nasser, allegedly gave them the wrong address.

All of this occurred on the very day Denny's signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice agreeing to halt alleged discriminatory practices at restaurants on the West Coast.

According to a suit filed in California last year, Denny's restaurants denied service to black customers, required large groups of black customers to prepay for their meals, and refused to give blacks free birthday meals, an amenity of the chain.

When restaurant managers felt there were too many blacks in the establishment, according to the suit, managers used the codeword "blackout," which was a signal to begin various practices to readjust the racial composition of the dining room.

The Justice Department investigated the charges last year and found the chain to be in violation of Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Last month, Denny's agreed to "reaffirm and reinforce" existing company policies against discrimination. In fact, a sign in the Annapolis restaurant yesterday proclaimed that "Denny's is committed to providing the best possible service to all customers regardless of race, creed, or national origin."

All things considered, then, the incident involving the Secret Service officers was a major embarrassment to the chain.

The company fired the manager on duty at the time for not reporting the agent's complaint to corporate headquarters. A spokesman for the chain said yesterday it believes the problem was poor service rather than an attempt to discriminate.

Denny's explanation of events actually makes more sense; who can believe that a business enterprise would deliberately turn away customers, and on the heels of a recession at that?

And yet, such stories crop up again and again. In recent years, Shoney's and Holiday Spas were among the national chains that have signed consent decrees with the Justice Department certifying that they will no longer try to drive away black customers.

Apparently, some white businessmen and their employees have a very serious problem.

It is serious, indeed, if they are so blinded by prejudice that they cannot see that money is neither black nor white -- only green.

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