FAIRFIELD TWP, OH (FOX19) - A server at Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar who “did not like Black people” ignored an African American couple and their two young sons while all white customers were promptly served, including those who came in after them, a federal lawsuit alleges.
The suit, filed Friday by a prominent civil rights law firm, accuses the national chain restaurant of race discrimination at one of its now-closed locations in Ohio, specifically the northern Cincinnati suburbs of Fairfield Township.
The restaurant off Princeton Road near Ohio Bypass 4 shuttered in the past year, FOX19 NOW confirmed Monday. It was not immediately clear why.
The plaintiffs are Butler County residents Natisha Harrison and Benneet Harrison, who have been married for more than eight years, according to Gerhardstein & Branch law firm in Cincinnati.
The lawsuit names the defendants as Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar; Applebee’s Restaurants LLC and RMH Franchise Corporation.
“At Applebee’s we have no tolerance for racism or bigotry of any kind and want all to feel welcome in our restaurants," said Mitch Blocher, president of RMH, an Applebee's franchise.
"When the alleged incident was brought to our attention in 2017, at a former Applebee’s location, we acted immediately to learn more and investigate. RMH also responded to a notice from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission regarding this matter and on July 26, 2018, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission determined there was no probable cause and closed the matter. Due to the pending litigation that was filed on April 5, 2019, we are unable to comment further.”
The Harrisons and their two minor sons were denied service by a server at the Applebee’s off Princeton Road near Ohio Bypass 4 the evening of April 19, 2017, according to the lawsuit. A party of 12 whites were waited on, followed by two sets of white couples who were seated after the Harrisons.
Natisha Harrison made multiple attempts to get the server’s attention, according to the suit. They were seated in a section that was not busy and had, in fact, stopped at that particular eatery since its parking lot was not crowded while other restaurants in the area were.
But after waiting an hour to have their orders taken, Natisha Harrison got up from the table, complained to the bartender and asked to speak to a manager, the suit states.
“The Harrisons were told by another employee that they were being discriminated against because their server did not like Black people. When they complained to the manager about not being served and being discriminated against, the manager was only concerned with the identity of the employee who told Plaintiffs that their server was racist,” the suit states.
While waiting for the manager to arrive, another server, who was white, “assured the Harrisons that they were ‘not tripping,’ that their server was intentionally not waiting on them,” the lawsuit reads.
"Sean explained that Kasey was not waiting on them because they were Black. He told them their server, Kasey, did not like Black people. Sean warned them that their complaint to the manager would fall on deaf ears because Black customers being poorly served happens ‘all the time.’”
The entire experience was humiliating to the couple, the suit states.
“The Harrisons chose to live in the Hamilton area, a diverse community, where they had not experienced racism. It is shocking to them to be ignored while white customers were served. It was even more upsetting that a server was permitted to work at Applebee’s who was known by staff to be racist.
"The Harrisons were embarrassed in front of their children because they were denied service based on their race. They were also upset when their complaint of blatant race discrimination to the manager was ignored. The Harrisons felt they were treated in a hostile manner that no reasonable customer would accept.”
The suit alleges violations of the Civil Rights Act and Ohio law and seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages and reasonable attorney fees.
“Defendant RMH admitted they failed to provide the Harrisons with the customer service they expected at an Applebee’s Restaurant," the suit states.
A manager eventually spoke with the Harrisons, telling them the restaurant was busy and offering to take their orders himself, but by that time it was too late for the family to eat; the couple gets up at 5 a.m. for work, according to the lawsuit.
“The Harrisons explained to the manager that they were not waited on because they were Black and felt they were discriminated against. They explained the other white customers were served and that a server told them Kasey was not waiting on them purposefully because they were Black,” the suit states.
“The manager was not interested in hearing their discrimination complaint. Instead, he demanded to know the name of the server who said Kasey was racist."
During their conversation with the manager, the Harrisons felt the Applebee’s Restaurant was treating them in a hostile and discriminatory manner. They felt they were being denied service by the staff because of their race while white customers were promptly waited on, had their orders taken and were served their meals, according to the suit.
“They felt the manager was ignoring the discrimination. During this conversation, their youngest son began to cry. They realized server Sean was right, their complaints were falling on deaf ears. They left the restaurant between 10:30 p.m. and 11 p.m."