Owners working with city and state civil rights departments for first-of-its-kind resolution to a discrimination complaint, but it’s only the first step.
By Nina Misuraca Ignaczak
As Founders Brewing Co. captured national headlines and public outrage last month for its handling of a discrimination lawsuit — ultimately forcing the Grand Rapids brewer to close their Midtown taproom indefinitely and settle out of court — another Detroit bar was quietly grappling with the aftermath of its own racial bias complaint.
The owners of downtown’s Checker Bar fired a white bartender on June 20, the day after a Black patron complained about experiencing poor treatment, according to Matt Pollard, who directs operations for the Grand Trunk Hospitality Group. The group owns several downtown restaurants including Checker Bar, Grand Trunk Pub and the Whiskey Parlor.
Though the incidents have key differences, from the severity of the allegations to managers’ responses — they both feed into common frustrations that white-owned, “New Detroit” businesses can be unwelcoming to long-time residents of the majority Black city.
After his experience at Checker, the patron contacted Detroit’s Department of Civil Rights, according to department director Charity Dean. The department investigates claims of discrimination on a regular basis for city employees and residents.
Dean said that the customer, Wendell, reported that the bartender was rude to him, was preferentially serving the white women seated next to him and called him names before asking him to leave. The bartender then posted Wendell’s personal information to a Facebook page for service workers. That post appears to have been removed.
(Detour Detroit has attempted to contact Wendell and will update this story if he responds; we are not using his full name without his permission. Dean and Checker representatives both declined to share the identity of the fired bartender.)
Welcoming a difficult conversation
Instead of just filing a complaint, Dean said Wendell wanted to do something different.
“It’s very unique; we haven’t had this before,” Dean told Detour. “Instead of filing an official complaint, he wanted to sit down and talk to Checker Bar.”
Dean’s office helped mediate a discussion, and Grand Trunk co-owner Tim Tharp said Wendell “graciously accepted his apology” for the mistreatment. As a result, the company and city are now working with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to host a public “#letstalkaboutrace” conversation on Nov. 21 at 3:30 p.m. on the second floor of Checker Bar.
Tharp told Detour that based on the group’s informal investigations and conversations with social media commenters, he does not believe the bartender’s actions were racially motivated.
“This bartender had been mistreating all kinds of customers — both black and white,” Tharp said. “In this case Wendell felt he had been mistreated and it was possibly because of race. After I did my investigation I believe it was just poor customer service.”
Though they didn’t identify evidence of other incidents, Tharp said they wanted to be proactive. In a statement on Facebook, Grand Trunk asked they be “judged on our response, not just the activities of the perpetrator.”
“Once it was on social media, there was a lot of… commenting that we were a racist bar,” Pollard said. “We wanted to make sure we got it out there, that we don’t want to be perceived as a racist bar. We are deep in the Detroit community. We…don’t want to exclude anybody from what we do.”
Dean said the private sit-down and public conversation are a first-of-its-kind outcome for the city’s department. She views Checker Bar’s handling of this incident as a positive step toward establishing more open dialogue around racial equity in the city’s service sector. It’s something that has resulted in problems for other “New Detroit” businesses in the last few years — including racial discrimination lawsuits filed against the Foundation Hotel and the Kid Rock restaurant at the Little Caesar’s Arena, and a boycott against Detroit Mercantile after the white owner was caught on video spitting on a Black man.
“We’re going to engage in a discussion about race in a time where the city of Detroit is changing,” Dean said about Checker Bar’s public event, calling attention to the influx of whiter, wealthier and newcomer residents to the city’s greater downtown area.
“You’re seeing multiple generations and diversity of races and people from different backgrounds operating in a space that historically looked a little bit different,” she added.
Where a business owner sees isolated incidents, others feel entrenched racism
Tharp said those changing demographics and ongoing racial tensions in the city are creating an environment where perceptions of racism in bars and restaurants will become an increasingly “common theme” where people think they are being discriminated against, even if it’s “because the bartender was having a bad day.”
But Detroiter Lauren Hood, an independent equitable development consultant, told Detour that these perceptions of bias are based on a long history of entrenched racism.
“Unlearning all the racism that’s been programmed into us is kind of like a lifetime journey,” she said. “It can’t just be a one-off series of workshops you go to because your job made you.”
Hood added that lawsuits, public backlash and one-off consequences are not sufficient to address systemic, institutionalized racism.
“I don’t think that we’re doing enough by just punishing people if the end game is to alleviate racism,” Hood said. “People are celebrating too quickly when we get all excited that, like, Founders is closed and somebody got fired. The racism is still there, the organization is still racist. The individuals that were involved at the center of the controversy are all still racist.”
Founders saga an extreme case, but puts Detroit’s entire hospitality industry under scrutiny
The Checker Bar conversation later this month follows a case at Founders stretching back to the summer of 2018, when the Metro Times first reported that former employee Tracy Evans had filed a lawsuit against the company alleging an ongoing racist work culture — including coworkers using the N-word — and a management structure that turned a blind eye to Evans’ complaints. Evans was fired from his position as the events and promotions manager of Founders’ Detroit Taproom in June 2018.
Last month, a transcript leaked from the case, showing a Founders manager going to absurd lengths to deny knowing Evans was African American,causing a wave of public blowback and the ultimate settlement.
Prior to the legal resolution, Founders co-founder David Engbers repeatedly said Evans’ firing was due to poor performance, not race.
Engbers told Detour the company had hoped the Detroit taproom venture would expand on the ethos that had “organically” evolved in Grand Rapids—one in which craft beer “transcends all ethnicities, genders, sexualities, political beliefs, and religious beliefs.”
“We wanted the folks down in Detroit to… kind of take the ball and run with it,” Engbers said. “In retrospect, maybe we needed to come down here and hold a few more hands.”
But according to Hood, Founders would have been better served by listening to the community initially rather than placing the onus on lower-level staff, especially if they made it Evans’ responsibility as one of the company’s few Black managers.
“It would be my recommendation .. that they have some closed-door sessions where Black Detroiters could just come tell them what it would look like to have an equitably operating brewpub,” she said. “They didn’t do that groundwork ahead of time. So now the problems manifest later on.”
Taking baby steps toward inclusion
Pollard told Detour that to his knowledge, the June incident was the first of its kind at Checker Bar. He estimates that slightly less than half of the employees at Checker are Black and said that while discrimination policies are written into the employee handbook, no racial sensitivity training or diversity and inclusion policies in hiring have been implemented so far. It’s something he said he is open to re-evaluating.
He’s looking forward to the Nov. 21 event, which will be facilitated by Anthony Lewis, director of community and business affairs for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, as a way to clear the air. Tharp is hoping it will be the first of a series of events that will engage downtown business owners.
“This conversation was waiting to happen,” Tharp told Detour. “I don’t think anyone realized there was so much gasoline when the match was lit. A lot of people have a lot of strong feelings that we weren’t even aware of. Let’s get together, let’s make this a learning experience to bring the community together and build a stronger community,”
But Hood made the point that one or two businesses trying to achieve equity won’t be enough to spark transformative change. Instead, she said, that needs to come from the policy level, citywide and systemwide.
“What might our small business landscape look like if the city required a certain level of community engagement before issuing business licenses?” she asked. “What other ways can we codify equity at the highest levels so that [discrimination] doesn’t manifest on the ground?”
Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a metro Detroit freelance journalist and publisher of the Planet Detroit Newsletter.
Photo courtesy Checker Bar/Facebook.