Cesar's, a popular Mexican restaurant with two locations in Boystown, was accused of discrimination again mid-September by a Chicago gay man, bringing the total number of alleged bias incidents at the eatery to three in as many weeks. The restaurant was accused of discriminating against a lesbian couple Aug. 31, and the following week, another Chicago lesbian reported an alleged bias incident she says occurred at Cesar's in May of 2002.
According to Pedro C., 26, sometime in May 2003 he and a platonic friend, also gay, decided to dine at Cesar's. Pedro told Windy City Times, 'I had been there before with groups of friends and always enjoyed myself, so I thought, let's go there.' According to Pedro, the men were seated in a corner of the restaurant between two large parties, even though it was a weeknight and the restaurant was not busy.
'We thought it was weird to be seated there, and we had to yell to hear each other because the other tables were noisy, so we asked the server if we could move to a different table.' The server, whom Pedro says treated him politely, declined his request. When Pedro and his friend Emmanuel protested further and pointed out the availability of more comfortable seating, 'out of nowhere' a short Latino male wearing a white shirt and apron burst out of the kitchen, snatched the menus from the men's hands and the placements from the table, and told them they 'had to go.' 'He was screaming so loud that everyone was noticing. I was so embarrassed,' said Pedro. As with the Aug. 31 allegation, Pedro says the man with the apron challenged both men to 'take it outside' as they prepared to leave.
As the men were exiting, Emmanuel stated loudly that he could not believe they had just been kicked out, and used an expletive. At that moment, according to Pedro, the man with the apron kicked Emmanuel in the rear end, sending him sprawling. Pedro then pushed the man with the apron, knocking over a table. 'At that point I was just protecting my friend and myself,' Pedro said. 'This guy is attacking his customers and nobody else is doing anything to stop him—no servers, no bartenders ... . Come on. We figured it had to be the owner doing this.'
The men did not file a police report because Emmanuel, who lives in Boston, did not want to press charges. Reluctantly, Pedro let the matter drop. 'I am still so angry about this,' he told Windy City Times. 'My friends and I used to go there twice a week at least, and none of our group has gone back there since then.'
Though the alleged altercation began over a request to switch to a different table and no anti-gay language was used, Pedro believes the restaurant thought he and Emmanuel were a couple. 'I thought to myself, why do I have this problem now, the first time I ever come here with just one other guy and not a group of friends? And why did they get so pissed off when we wanted to sit somewhere else? It doesn't make any sense unless it's discrimination.'
On Aug. 31, lesbian partners Naomi Mendoza and Melissa Johns met friends at Cesar's for dinner. According to the women, when they began to stroke each other's faces affectionately, a man they described as a busboy approached and began to berate them, stating the two needed to 'behave ... this is a family restaurant.' When Johns asked for the man's name and his manager's name, he reportedly became irate, screaming that 'I'm in charge tonight, there is no manager, so get out!' The man then allegedly challenged Johns to a fistfight, at which point a female employee of the restaurant threatened to call the police to remove Mendoza and Johns while doing nothing to defuse the situation.
Later, lesbian Kathy Betts came forward to report an alleged incident in which Betts was verbally attacked by a busboy at Cesar's on May 14, 2002, after displaying physical affection to a friend. Betts was told to 'behave' and never to come back to the restaurant.
Interviewed at the Clark Street restaurant on Sept. 12, owner Cesar Sanchez told Windy City Times that he was the person who spoke with Mendoza and Johns Aug. 31. He denied that he approached their table because they were lesbian; he approached them, he said, because the women were 'drunk and horny.' He also claimed families were in the restaurant at the time. 'I do not discriminate,' the senior Sanchez told Windy City Times. 'We serve everybody, and I employ many gay people. I don't care about any of that stuff.' But when asked whether he would have reacted the same way to a straight couple expressing affection, Sanchez refused to answer, saying that such a discussion 'is like talking about religion. We'd be here all day.'
In an unsigned letter faxed to Windy City Times from Cesar's, apparent representatives of the restaurant stated they were 'shocked' by the events of Aug. 31; called it an 'isolated incident' and reiterated they do not discriminate; stated that 80% of their business is gay and lesbian; and claimed that Mendoza and Johns had consumed a great deal of alcohol and behaved in a 'promiscuous' manner, leading to a complaint from another table and forcing the restaurant to take action when the women 'totally ignored and gave bad attitude' toward Cesar's staff. The restaurant also faxed Windy City Times a separate letter written by a gay male couple who witnessed the Aug. 31 incident supporting the restaurant's version of events.
Israel Sanchez, son of the owner and a manager at Cesar's, contacted Windy City Times via telephone Sept. 15 to assert the restaurant's commitment to serving the GLBT community fairly. 'Without the support of the gay and lesbian community, we would definitely not have two locations, and our Clark Street location would have hardly any employees.' All alleged bias incidents have been at the Clark Street location. Sanchez, who estimates that the staff on Clark Street is approximately 60% gay, said the employee who reportedly harassed a lesbian couple Aug. 31 had recently been promoted to supervisor and was, according to Sanchez, 'on a power trip.' Sanchez told WCT that the employee was reprimanded, demoted, and re-assigned to a position with very little customer contact. (However, owner Sanchez said in an interview he was the person who talked to the couple.)
'We prefer to handle these things within the family,' Sanchez said. 'A lot of times when people are drinking, they blow things out of proportion. We don't want to make a big deal when it is not necessary. The bottom line is, we do not discriminate. Why would we do that? It doesn't make any sense—we understand where our business is located and how supportive gays and lesbians have been of our restaurant. We know how devastating it would be to our business if we discriminated against gays and lesbians.' He encouraged customers with complaints to go to www.killermargaritas.com .
According to Sanchez, Cesar's is a 'family-oriented' restaurant and has a policy of not permitting overt public displays of affection between couples. 'Holding hands would be OK, a kiss on the cheek is OK, but things like sitting on each other's laps, that is something we would probably ask the customer to stop doing.' Sanchez told Windy City Times that this policy has been in place at the restaurant 'for 15 years, and this is the first time anyone has complained.' He also says straight couples are routinely asked to tone down their public displays of affection while dining at Cesar's if the behavior is deemed 'out of hand,' in Sanchez's words.
The determination of what constitutes an inappropriate display of affection is, Sanchez admits, a gray area at the discretion of management on duty. 'This is a restaurant, not a bar,' Sanchez said, although he admits that Cesar's advertises itself as the home of the 'killer margarita' both on its storefronts and its Web site, an unusual advertising slogan for a family-oriented restaurant. Still, Sanchez is apologetic about the reported bias: 'Clearly (the alleged Aug. 31 bias incident) was mishandled on our part, and I apologize for employing someone who treated our customers poorly,' Sanchez said.
Melissa Johns and Naomi Mendoza reacted with disbelief when told the restaurant maintains that the women incited the Aug. 31 incident with drunk and disorderly behavior. 'I wasn't even drinking that night, and Naomi had half a margarita,' said Johns. And both women insist their behavior was not in any way overtly sexual. 'We were stroking each other's cheeks. It was a tender, affectionate moment. We did not even kiss. It was not at all sexual,' says Johns. 'A mother and her child could have had the exact same physical contact that Naomi and I had that night.' Johns and Mendoza also insist they saw no families in the restaurant Aug. 31. 'It was the usual crowd of young adults, gay people and Cubs fans,' said Johns. 'And there weren't that many people in the restaurant anyway. We would have noticed kids around.'
Indeed, the restaurant stated in its letter to Windy City Times that approximately 80% of its customers are from the gay community, thereby inferring that the vast majority of Cesar's customers are not traditional straight families with children.
Activists also point out that Israel Sanchez's explanation of a power-hungry new manager taking advantage of his position in the Aug. 31 incident does not adequately explain the actions of a female employee who threatened to call police on Johns and Mendoza; the alleged incident on May 14, 2002 involving Kathy Betts; or owner Cesar Sanchez's comment that he was the person who engaged with Johns and Mendoza on Aug. 31.
It is also unclear whether other neighborhood restaurants share the Sanchez family's interpretations of public decency: Windy City Times conducted a test in which a lesbian couple visited several Boys Town establishments and engaged in the same public displays of affection which led to incidents at Cesar's on Clark, including kissing on the lips and stroking of arms and faces. The lesbian couple conducting the test also engaged in additional actions slightly more provocative than those reported to have taken place at Cesar's. The establishments visited, including PS Bangkok on North Clark Street, Nookie's on Halsted, Thai Classic on North Clark Street, Ihop on Broadway and Grace, and the newly renovated Dunkin' Donuts on North Clark, did not ask the couple to tone down their displays of affection, even as small children milled happily with their parents at the Dunkin' Donuts. At a nearly empty PS Bangkok on Clark Street between Roscoe and Aldine, the restaurant owner engaged the women in a pleasant discussion about the economy, served the couple herself and welcomed them to return for subsequent visits.
According to Bill Greaves, the Mayor's GLBT liaison, consumers with bias complaints against any business may contact the Adjudication Division of the Commission on Human Relations at (312) 744-4111 to request a hearing, but he cautions the agency is already 'one year behind.' Greaves is unaware of any current complaints against Cesar's.
Mendoza and Johns, whose Aug. 31 complaint ignited the current controversy over Cesar's policies, want a public apology from the restaurant. 'They were wrong, and they need to admit that. Their employee totally freaked out, screamed at us, and wanted to fight me. Regardless of whether or not we violated one of their so-called rules, that's no way to treat a customer, and they know it. ... We were not drunk, and we were not promiscuous. This whole thing is their responsibility,' said Johns.
'If this is how they want to treat their customers they need to get out of business. It's appalling,' said Pedro C.