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As Baltimore’s Atlas restaurants drop dress codes at 2 properties, a Black mom speaks out and dozens protest

The Baltimore-based Atlas Restaurant Group announced Thursday evening that it would no longer enforce a dress code at either of its properties at the Four Seasons Hotel in Harbor East.

Yet by Friday afternoon, a state senator had called for a boycott and dozens of protesters were chanting outside Atlas establishments. The Black mother whose son was denied entry into Ouzo Bay restaurant rejected overtures from Atlas founder Alex Smith and said the experience was one the 9-year-old was “going to have to live with for the rest of his life.”

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Last Sunday, Marcia Grant and her 9-year-old son, Dallas, were in Harbor East, where they planned to have a meal. Dallas picked out Ouzo Bay; he liked that there was a place to sit outside. Upon entering the restaurant, a manager told them the child, dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, didn’t meet the restaurant’s dress code.

On their way out, Grant noticed a white child wearing a similar outfit. She demanded an explanation from the manager for what looked like pure discrimination.

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She took out her camera to record the encounter. Later, she posted it to social media.

During a global reckoning on race and a protest movement that has seen thousands take to the streets, Grant’s video has gone viral many times over. It’s drawn condemnation from celebrities and interviews with “Good Morning America.” Yelp pages for the various Atlas-owned properties in Baltimore have been flooded with negative reviews decrying the exchange.

To critics, the video hearkened to an era of “whites only” water fountains and segregationist policies. They point to last year’s controversy over the dress code at Atlas’ Choptank restaurant, which was revised slightly after complaints of discrimination.

The Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore issued a statement Thursday on Twitter distancing itself from the restaurant group and saying it had shared its dismay over the Ouzo Bay incident with Atlas. “Given our concerns… they have agreed to remove the dress code from Maximon and The Bygone.” The Bygone, a nostalgic ode to American cuisine, sits atop the 29th floor; Maximon, an elevated Mexican restaurant, opened New Year’s Eve.

Atlas, which owns 15 eateries in the city as well as others in Texas and Florida, “continues to assess the policy at each of its venues,” according to a statement.

In a rare interview with The Baltimore Sun, Smith, speaking Thursday at the Atlas offices in Harbor East, expressed regret for the incident, saying he hoped to make amends to Dallas.

“I want the opportunity to meet him. I want the opportunity to be a mentor to him,” Smith said. “I want the opportunity to apologize to him and Marcia.”

In the aftermath of the encounter, the restaurant mogul and grandson of the late baker and developer John Paterakis says he worked quickly to change the dress code so it doesn’t apply to children under 12.

Smith said he’s made more than a dozen attempts to reach the family, to no avail. Grant confirmed that Smith had tried to reach out, and invited her and Dallas to come back to the restaurant to talk. But she’s not interested in speaking.

“We are beyond an apology,” said Michelle Watts, a Los Angeles publicist for the family. Asked about Smith’s hope to mentor Dallas, Watts laughed. “Mentor him about what? ... Maybe Dallas should mentor him.”

A single mother, Marcia Grant says she’s always ready to fight for Dallas, a rising fourth-grader who loves history, golf and playing the drums.

“Black children are treated a little bit different,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t even think people are aware of their own bias. And I just try to make sure it doesn’t impact him in a negative way.”

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At her son’s majority white school in Howard County, she says, she’s been known to pitch a “fit” if she feels Dallas isn’t being treated fairly.

“If he’s supposed to be able to come into a restaurant,” Grant said, “Then he’s going to be able to come into that restaurant.”

Grant and her attorneys see the exclusion of Dallas as a precursor to killings of Black men like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot dead while jogging near his home in Georgia. While the injuries to Dallas weren’t physical, Grant says, “This is something that he’s going to have to live with for the rest of his life. It doesn’t heal like a wound would.”

But Smith and others with Atlas insist that the incident doesn’t represent who they are.

While calling the video of Grant and her son being turned away “one of the worst things that I’ve seen in a long time,” Atlas Restaurant Group chef Aaron Taylor insists what happened at Ouzo Bay isn’t a true reflection of the restaurant group. If it were, Taylor, who is biracial, says, “I would have left a long, long time ago.”

Prior to the arrival of the coronavirus, Taylor and Smith had been collaborating on programs to mentor Baltimore students, preparing them to work in the hospitality industry. Atlas Restaurant Group advertises its brand with the slogan “#CityNeedsIt,” something Smith says gives them an added responsibility to give back to the community.

‘He can’t come in’

Smith says the codes are meant not to exclude people but to elevate the guest experience and, in some cases, protect patrons.

At Choptank, for example, backpacks are prohibited during evening hours — something that Smith says is necessary given violence in the neighborhood. Five people were shot in the square near the restaurant one evening this month. “Do you think it’s safe with an outdoor patio that can seat 120 people for people to be able to walk in with book bags or backpacks in an area where there has been a ... shooting?”

Smith believes that the dress code is enforced regardless of race and social standing. “Even my own family has tried to get into properties and been turned away on multiple occasions,” he said.

He points to an encounter this year when, he says, Gordon Ramsay sought a seat at The Bygone. A guest of the Four Seasons, the celebrity chef known as much for his television appearances as for his restaurants opted to check out the restaurant, which boasts sweeping views of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and elevated prices to match.

The only problem? Ramsay was wearing sneakers — something the dress code, until very recently, forbade. A manager called Smith to let him know the situation.

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Smith’s answer: “He can’t come in.” A spokesman for Ramsay did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

While Smith stands by that decision to keep out Ramsay, he’s adamant that such a stringent dress code should not have applied to 9-year-old Dallas. “I’ll never know ever what it felt like as a 9-year-old kid to be turned away from a restaurant.”

To Grant, removing the dress code for kids misses the point. “It was never an issue of policy,” she said. For her, the problem was that the policy was implemented unfairly.

At rock bottom

The issue comes at a time when Atlas is also facing the worst time for the hospitality industry in generations. Smith gestured out the window to the nearby Marriott hotel, a nearly 800-room facility that’s boarded up and vacant. It’s set to reopen July 1.

“Right now in the hospitality industry, regardless of everything that’s going on [with social justice], we’re fighting this whole other battle of: Is our industry going to survive?”

Smith laid out his concerns in a March 15 email to Keiffer Mitchell, chief legislative officer to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Atlas’ 13 properties in the state had experienced a 50% reduction of sales in the preceding days, he wrote. Any regulations to keep diners apart would further diminish business.

“When this happens, restaurants will slowly go out of business and employees won’t make any money.” He recommended Hogan shut down all restaurants for two weeks, thereby allowing newly laid-off employees to collect unemployment.

At the time, he believed that Atlas would be able to file a lost business insurance claim. Insurance ended up not coming through, he said, though he was able to receive loans through the Paycheck Protection Program for some of his properties.

“We wouldn’t be able to operate right now without PPP money and when PPP money runs out, which is going to be soon, we will be operating at a severe loss,” Smith said.

A few months ago, such a bleak outlook for Smith and Atlas would have been hard to imagine. With two new properties in the works, one in Harbor East’s Bagby Building and another in Cross Street Market, Atlas had seemed ready to extend its domination of Baltimore’s dining scene.

But many of Atlas’ high-end concepts are built around atmosphere and vibe, and don’t lend themselves to carryout. Atlas concepts in Texas recently reopened after monthslong closures, but should they need to close down again, “We’re shutting down and laying people off again,” Smith said.

On Friday, facing a spike in COVID-19 cases. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars to close and limited restaurants to half capacity.

Add the Ouzo Bay incident and the ensuing online vitriol to the mix, and Smith says: “I can tell you personally, I’m absolutely at the bottom right now that I’ve ever been in my life.”

Early Friday evening, about 40 protesters gathered outside The Choptank in Fells Point, marching through the streets to Harbor East, and calling for a boycott. As they stood at the entrance to Tagliata, an Atlas property on Fleet Street, a Black woman held up her cell phone and asked diners: “Are you enjoying your dinner at this racist dining establishment?”

”This is a time for us to make people learn this is not an isolated incident,” said Trey Miller, 24, one of the organizers. “These were not simply the actions of one rogue manager.”

Grant’s lawyers, who say they plan to sue the restaurant group, agree. “From my understanding, this isn’t an isolated incident with this restaurant,” said attorney Donte Mills, who is working on the case.

To some critics, the bottom for Atlas can’t come fast enough. In a column published Friday in The Baltimore Sun, state Sen. Jill P. Carter, who is Black, recounted multiple instances of being turned away or kicked out of Atlas Restaurant Group properties.

“I have concluded with a clear conscience that there is no place for Atlas Restaurant Group in Baltimore City,” Carter wrote. She called for a boycott of Atlas eateries — until they go out of business.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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