Schaefer's on menu at McDonald's

Comptroller is hot topic at Arundel restaurant, site of `English' incident

May 14, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

It's been more than a week since Comptroller William Donald Schaefer complained about the faltering English of a McDonald's employee -- attracting the ire of immigrant communities.

The 82-year-old Anne Arundel County resident hasn't been back to the Severna Park McDonald's where the much-talked-about exchange recently took place, but the passionate discussion he launched across the state continued there yesterday morning as customers ordered Arabica coffee and Egg McMuffins.

"I've been talking about it with my co-workers," said Bill Whytsell, a service technician with the Maryland Transit Administration who picks up breakfast at McDonald's several times a week. "A lot of us agree with [Schaefer] on this. If you can't speak English properly, then how can you do your work?"

Whytsell, who said he has had trouble ordering from immigrants with shaky English, added: "It's not their fault that they have a heavy accent, but it makes it difficult for customers."

Brandon Jones has been a 15-year regular at the McDonald's -- on a busy corner of Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard, near Ritchie Highway -- stopping in every day for a breakfast combo that includes two egg-and-sausage McMuffins and a coffee.

"They've always been friendly and fast," Jones said. "Sometimes you've got to take your time with an order, but it doesn't bother me."

Despite the whirlwind of controversy surrounding the incident, employees at the fast-food location called their newfound notoriety comical, snickering about Schaefer and Spanish from behind a busy counter yesterday morning.

"Maybe we should say, `Hola amiga!' to customers now," joked cashier Anthony Ramage, wearing a blue McDonald's shirt and a bandana tied around his head. "Or, we could put up a sign saying `Spanish Only: Thank You, Schaefer.' "

Until last week, Schaefer, the former governor and Baltimore mayor, patronized the McDonald's virtually every morning for a breakfast combo of tea and a biscuit, according to store employees.

Michael Golden, Schaefer's spokesman, confirmed that the comptroller is no longer dining there and said he has no plans to offer an apology to the employee.

"He did not treat her rudely," Golden said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. later defended Schaefer, dismissing multiculturalism as "bunk" and "crap" in a radio interview. The governor has also refused to apologize.

At a May 5 Board of Public Works meeting, Schaefer grumbled that the employee was unable to take his order because of her poor English skills, adding: "I don't want to adjust to another language. This is the United States. I think they should adjust to us."

He said he'd also encountered another immigrant worker at McDonald's on the morning of the meeting, but that an English-speaking cashier helped with the transaction. Another irritation, Schaefer said, was the use of foreign languages on the chain's sandwich bags.

Julie Pottebaum, a McDonald's spokeswoman, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

The Oak Brook, Ill.-based corporation extols the virtues of a diverse work force on its Web site: "Our corporate vision for diversity is to leverage the unique talents, strengths and assets of our people in order to provide the world's best quick service restaurant experience. We believe diversity goes beyond race and gender to include diversity of experience and ideas."

A Spanish-speaking employee at the McDonald's said she was not upset about Schaefer's comments, but is confused why he singled out the employee, who was recently hired.

"She speaks better English than me," said the employee, who asked not to be identified. Restaurant managers had told employees not to comment.

The employee who served Schaefer was not at the restaurant and has not responded to interview requests.

Some McDonald's regulars yesterday morning said that the nature of Schaefer's remarks is being overstated.

"This is all being blown out of proportion," said McDonald's regular Dale Younker of Crownsville. "As long as [restaurant employees] speak a little English, I can decipher what they're saying. And if I can't understand them, so what?"

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