By Sean Yoes
AFRO Baltimore Editor
The heat was on the owner of the glitzy Ouzo Bay restaurant in Harbor East recently, when a video surfaced depicting an overtly racist dress code policy being enforced by restaurant management last weekend.
The video shows Marcia Grant and her nine-year-old son Dallas, a Black boy dressed in Michael Jordan athletic gear, being barred from entering the restaurant, while in plain sight of the Black family, a White boy dressed in athletic gear (tee shirt, shorts, athletic shoes) enjoys time at the restaurant with his family. Seems like a case of text book blatant racism.
And by all accounts Alex Smith, the owner of the Atlas Restaurant Group, which includes Ouzo Bay, along with eight others acted swiftly to correct the situation.
According to Atlas the two managers, “have been separated from and are no longer with the organization.” Atlas also announced dress code policy shifts and released several subsequent statements, including the following:
“NOW is the time for change. And we believe that change begins at home – with introspection and self-reflection. We are committed to listening. We are committed to engaging in open, honest dialogue about discrimination and racial inequality – with our team, colleagues, family, friends, and community. We are committed to educating ourselves, to bettering ourselves, and to creating a company culture that celebrates diversity and stands against discrimination in any form,” Atlas said in a statement.
However, last year the group was caught up in another controversy over dress code policy. Choptank, another Atlas restaurant, which is in Fells Point, was exposed for its dress code banning “excessively baggy clothing; offensive, vulgar or inappropriate attire, athletic attire (and) jerseys.” Many believed the policy had racial overtones and the policy was later changed.
Recently, a former manager of an Atlas Group restaurant spoke to the AFRO only on the condition of anonymity. What they revealed is a restaurant that appeared to operate in a milieu of racism and sexism fed by some in management.
“I worked for Bygone briefly. I left after witnessing their racist behavior,” said the former manager of the Bygone restaurant, one of nine Baltimore eateries owned by Smith.
Bygone, described as a “Ritzy rooftop at the Four Seasons serving refined continental fare and cocktails with 1920s flair,” also seemed to demonstrate an antiquated attitude in its treatment of Black patrons and female employees. The former manager, who worked at Bygone between 2017 and 2018, outlined in detail restaurant policies and an overall culture that was far from inclusive.
“The dress code was strictly enforced for people of color. The dress code was not enforced if the patron was White,” said the former manager, affirming the recently revealed video depicting the implementation of a racist dress code policy.
“The servers complained about this. The hostesses complained about this. Nothing was done.”
The former manager, who has extensive experience in the hospitality industry, also recalled a specific incident, which revealed a general culture of race bias.
“During an event, a rap song came over the loudspeaker. One of the managers, a White man in his 50’s ran to the DJ booth screaming, ‘Turn that s**t off!’ said the former manager. When I asked him what was wrong he said, ‘We don’t play rap here. We don’t want to draw the wrong crowd.’”
According to the former Bygone manager sometimes the restaurant nurtured a culture of racism mingled with sexual objectification.
“I was tasked with hiring hostesses. I hired three Black hostesses in their early 20’s,” said the former Atlas Restaurant Group employee. “The owner (Smith) was dismayed. He said, ‘Can’t you find any attractive hostesses?’ A few days later, I hired a White hostess. He literally patted me on the back and said, ‘Well done. She’s hot!’”
The former Bygone manager made other claims. “Cocktail waitresses were routinely groped by patrons,” they said. “They complained. Nothing was done.”
And the former employee also said they took their complaints to human resources only to find they were not alone in witnessing disturbing behavior.
“I spoke with HR. She said they’d had a lot of complaints regarding racism and sexual harassment. She told me she was considering leaving the company for this reason,” the former manager said.
“I was told by one of their wealthy Black patrons that I should never have accepted a position there,” said the former employee reflecting on their time at Bygone. “She said that they rarely hired Black managers. This bothered her…I wish I’d taken her advice.”
At the end of the day, policy changes, back pedalling and declaring “Black lives matter,” in press releases will never erase the sting of racism for a nine-year old boy and his mother.
“I have faced racism time and time again,” said Grant via Facebook on June 22. “But, it’s hard, when you have to see your child upset because he knows he’s being treated different than a White child!!!”