Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 28, 2020

Baltimore restaurant reignites controversy after denying service to Black customer

By CHRIS H. PARK | June 28, 2020

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COURTESY OF MICHELLE LIMPE

The Atlas Restaurant Group faces dress code backlash after manager refused to seat a Black child.

Atlas Restaurant Group apologized after a Black woman posted a video of her and her son being denied service at Ouzo Bay in Harbor East on June 21. In the video, which has since been widely circulated on social media, a white manager denies service to the Black woman and her son because her son was wearing athletic clothing. The video shows a white child in similar clothing dining at the restaurant.

Since the incident, dozens of people have protested outside Ouzo Bay and other restaurants owned by Atlas. Maryland State Senator Jill P. Carter has also called for a boycott of the restaurant, arguing that there is no place for the company in Baltimore.

Atlas owns and operates a number of restaurants in Baltimore, including Tagliata and Azumi, as well as restaurants in Washington D.C., Texas and Florida. 

The manager seen in the video is no longer associated with Atlas, according to its statement posted on Facebook. The company has also revised its dress code policy to exempt children under 12 and launched an internal investigation.

“What took place was not only disturbing, it was also eye-opening, and we are committed to learning from it and implementing real change as a result,” the statement read.

After Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore — where two Atlas-owned restaurants, The Bygone and Maximon, are located — distanced itself from Atlas, both restaurants announced they are entirely discontinuing their dress code policies on June 25 in a separate statement

In an interview with The News-Letter, PhD student Richard DeShay Elliott argued that there are larger issues with the owners of Atlas than this incident. He pointed to the Smith family — who founded Atlas — particularly because of their involvement with the conservative-leaning broadcast group Sinclair. 

“Regardless of whatever their internal investigation shows, the [Smith] family is going to remain the same because, with the amount of wealth [and] the political power they have. They can do whatever the fuck they want,” he said. “They’ve used their wealth and power to set public policy in the city for their benefit. Beyond the interpersonal racism, there is structural power racism in the way they operate in the Baltimore power ecosystem.”

Elliott added that dress codes, in general, are used as a discriminatory measure.

“It’s been known for a long time that long dress codes like that — no athletic shoes, no shorts, no T-shirts — are used throughout the United States, and particularly in Maryland, with the express goal of keeping Black people from entering certain establishments,” he said. “I've been in situations where people have been rejected from a club or bar under those pretenses while there were white people who were against the dress codes that are allowed in.”

Rising sophomore Yuwen Wang stated that she supported Atlas’ decision to revise the dress code policies in an email to The News-Letter.

“The video was quite upsetting but necessary in order to generate the public response that compelled the restaurant to take action. The video went to show how certain policies, if not uniformly enforced, the implicit biases will be reflected in how people enforce them,” she wrote. 

Wang added that she will return to an Atlas-owned restaurant.

“I will visit an Atlas restaurant again because I don't believe this incident to be reflective of the character of their company,” she wrote. “I appreciated the swift response by the company and I think it shows that they are willing to take the steps necessary to promote racial equity.”

Elliott and Wang have both been customers at an Atlas-owned restaurant.

This is not the first time the Atlas Group faced criticism over perceived racism at one of its restaurants. Last year, another Atlas-operated restaurant in Fell’s Point, Choptank, received criticism over their dress code policy that many viewed to be discriminatory. 

At that time, co-founder Alex Smith defended the policies on his personal Facebook page, slamming the attacks as a hit job.

“Everyone in fells — as well as secrets, fagers, tiki lees, mgm, Wynn — all with [the] same dress code,” he wrote. “Fake news media!”

Many restaurants and restaurant owners in Baltimore responded to the controversy, criticizing the restaurant.

Minje Suh, the owner of Waffie, a dessert shop in Hampden, stated her disappointment over Atlas’ response in an email to The News-Letter.

“I noticed that they didn’t address the main concern,” she wrote. “The main problem wasn’t about what he was or wasn’t wearing, it was about the sole fact that they were discriminated against.”

Suh added that she does not object to a restaurant having a dress code policy, but she expressed concern over how it would be implemented.

“As a restaurant owner, I understand why a restaurant would implement a dress code. Dress codes may be necessary when owners want to create a certain environment for customers,” she wrote. “The problem is that dress codes have to be enforced by staff in a way that’s fair and indiscriminate. It’s the job of management to train staff members so that they clearly understand what’s appropriate and what isn’t when making judgment calls regarding dress code violations.”

Several Baltimore-based food bloggers were critical of the company as well.

In an email to The News-Letter, Simone Phillips, who runs the Charm City Table blog, noted that the incident last Sunday was not unique and stated that the actions they took were not sufficient.

“The harm being caused inside of these spaces is frequent and seems intentional,” she wrote. “Atlas' actions are the result of a viral video, and, while it may seem appropriate, it does not change the culture of Atlas as a company. There is a pattern of harmful actions being done to Atlas' employees and customers and the issues are much bigger than allowing children 12 and under to wear athletic attire.”

Phillips added that she faced discriminatory actions by the staff at The Elk Room, an Atlas-owned speakeasy in Little Italy, over a year ago. She wrote that when she took a picture with a flash on, she was approached by the manager who let her know that flash photography was not allowed, despite the fact that a group of white customers were taking photos with their flash on at an adjacent table.

“When I asked the manager what the difference was, he could not explain it to me. I was extremely uncomfortable after experiencing this blatant double standard and left shortly after the exchange,” Phillips wrote. “I did not report it because, when I shared my experience with the blogger community, many let me know these actions are typical from Atlas. I did not see the point in reporting a racist incident to the same people who put racist policies in place on purpose.”

BmoreFood’s Louie Silverio, in an email to The News-Letter, noted that he had also been racially profiled by a security staff at an opening event at Choptank. He also echoed Phillips in noting that racist behavior at Atlas restaurants predated this incident.

“It was just a matter of time before they were caught on video. They have had multiple incidents reported of racial discrimination,” Silverio wrote. “But for this to happen to a young boy is unacceptable. He was clearly wearing the exact same thing as the white child dining outside. The look on his eyes of defeat and embarrassment makes me angry and sad that he will forever remember this moment.”

Atlas Restaurant Group and Alex Smith did not respond to requests for comments by press time.

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