They saw it in ways big and small. At Loch Bar, employees noticed the Black customers would be seated in the worst spots. At Azumi, a server says that nine out of 10 people stopped from entering for dress code issues were African American. And at Ouzo Bay, The Bygone and other high-end eateries in the Atlas Restaurant Group, Black customers say they felt humiliated when they were stopped and sometimes barred from entering because of dress codes they say were unfairly enforced based on race.
Atlas owns 15 restaurants and bars in Baltimore, along with a few establishments in Florida and Texas and one soon-to-open spot in Washington, D.C. Many of the businesses, in the city’s upscale Harbor East neighborhood, are among the go-to spots for Baltimore’s movers and shakers.
Late last month, a Black mother and her 9-year-old son were denied entrance to Ouzo Bay because the boy was wearing athletic clothes. Videos the mother took of the incident have been viewed millions of times online. In the video, the mother, Marcia Grant, points to a white boy at the restaurant, saying he was wearing shorts similar to her son’s.
Several former employees and Black would-be patrons at Atlas restaurants say this was not an isolated case at the restaurant group. They say it is part of a longstanding pattern of discrimination against African Americans.
Apprised of the allegations, Atlas on Thursday released statements from four Black employees and two Black contractors who vehemently disputed claims of racial discrimination. They emphasized that the dress codes are applied fairly to everyone and praised Atlas as a good place to work.
But former employees and customers The Sun spoke to point to multiple incidents. A former employee of the restaurant group says a manager didn’t want to stock a liquor heavily marketed to Black people. Former Ravens player Jason Murphy, who is Black, was stopped on his birthday in August 2018 from going into The Bygone because he was wearing casual shoes, according to his wife — even as she watched white men wearing similar shoes being allowed to enter.
“Almost every Black person has an Atlas story,” said Murphy’s wife, Robyn, director of communications and strategic partnerships at Center Stage. She is Black. She recalls feeling disappointed and panicked because they had reserved a large space. Eventually, after asking to speak to a manager and taking pictures of white men’s shoes that were similar to her husband’s, she said, they were allowed in. But she and her husband were angry. Jason Murphy corroborated her account.
Alex Smith, founder and president of Atlas, said in a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun that he wants everyone to feel welcome at his restaurants.
“Our restaurants are some of the most inclusive and diverse restaurants in this city. Period. Not only from an employee standpoint, but also from a customer standpoint. And that’s a fact,” Smith said. “And we are not trying to exclude anybody by using a dress code.”
He says the dress codes aim to elevate the guest experience.
Smith’s initial public stance about the video was conciliatory. He said he fired the two employees in the video, dropped the dress code for children under 12 and would conduct diversity and inclusion training for Atlas staff.
However, on Thursday, Scott Marder, Atlas’ attorney, released a statement pushing back at allegations of racism, criticizing the boy’s mother and stating that the white boy in the video was wearing J. Crew khaki shorts that complied with the dress code, while the Black boy’s attire did not.
Atlas also pointed to its charitable giving and noted that during the pandemic, the company had begun forming a foundation to more effectively target donations in Baltimore city. The statement also said Atlas has distributed more than 7,000 bags of groceries.
Citing a looming lawsuit by the family in the video, spokesman Joe Sweeney declined requests to interview the employees and contractors who submitted statements in support of Atlas.
One of the employees, Rodney Winkler, general manager at Ouzo Bay, wrote: “I feel it’s horrendous for anyone to assume Atlas Restaurant Groups dress code is racially motivated. I am an African American man [and] proud to be a part of the Atlas Restaurant Family.”
But there have been warning signs of issues of race at Atlas. Last September, Atlas came under fire amid allegations of a discriminatory dress code at the Choptank in Fells Point; Smith defended the dress code but dropped some of its restrictions. Baltimore author D. Watkins publicly discussed his one-man boycott of Atlas, alleging the dress codes were discriminatory after he says he was barred from Loch Bar in February 2019 because of a dress code violation. And Robyn Murphy says she vividly recalls having a conversation with Smith about the incident on her husband’s birthday.
Smith did not respond to questions from The Sun about his prior awareness of such concerns.
The business has faced fallout since the video of Grant and her son, Dallas, drew national attention and outrage, including public protests and calls for a boycott from state Sen. Jill P. Carter. Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee for mayor, has called on Atlas to lift its dress code policy at all locations. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke says she plans to introduce a resolution to the City Council on Monday that urges Atlas to drop its dress code at all restaurants.
In the statement released Thursday, Marder accused Scott and Carter of trying “to use this incident to their advantage” and said they owed Atlas’ workforce “an immediate, public apology.”
Two Atlas restaurants dropped their dress codes at the request of their landlord, the Four Seasons Hotel. Atlas also scaled back the dress code at many other properties. Before they were changed, the dress codes varied by restaurant; some banned athletic wear, sneakers, and baggy clothes.
Dress codes like Atlas’ can be used to selectively block Black people from restaurants and other spaces, according to one expert.
“It’s the concept that if you are suited and booted, you will be able to have access to these spaces,” said David Wall Rice, professor of psychology and head of the identity, art and democracy lab at Morehouse College. “Respectability politics is very much about fitting in. ... Black folk are told that they are not enough. ... They are told they need to perform and fit in with dominant culture. That has to deal with dress, general conformity, how you speak, code-switching. It is about acceptable behavior or safe or allowable behaviors in these spaces.”
World champion boxer Franchón Crews-Dezurn says she had to navigate this on June 12, when she went to meet a friend for dinner in Harbor East. Aside from her diamond stud earrings and Chanel bag, she recalled, she was outfitted in Under Armour: white shoes, a matching three-quarter-length sleeve top, mid-thigh shorts and a camisole.
Crews-Dezurn, who is Black, asked to be seated al fresco at Ouzo Bay, she says, but was denied because she didn’t have a reservation. She said the seats at the restaurant, which was only serving patrons outside, were empty. Next, she walked to nearby Loch Bar, where she was told by an employee she was dressed inappropriately. Meanwhile, she said, white people sat nearby in more casual cargo shorts and T-shirts.
“Coming out of the pandemic, my money isn’t good enough [for Atlas restaurants]. It was embarrassing,” Crews-Dezurn recalled.
Employees recall incidents
Atlas employees, several who worked at the restaurants up until this week, say they’ve witnessed racial bias and, in some cases, have spoken to management. The five employees interviewed by The Sun, all of whom are white, described a toxic culture where discrimination was regularly displayed.
Kenzie Cockerill, a server at Azumi from 2015 to 2017, recalled seeing numerous customers being denied entry to the restaurant during her time working there because of the dress code. “Nine out of 10 of them were Black,” she said.
Cockerill recalled complaining to the hostess after noticing a pattern.
“She [The hostess] said, ‘Yeah, I know it sucks, but I can’t let them in.’ We were denying a table of four to five people, and it was money we would have been getting,” Cockerill recalled arguing.
Cockerill can recall only one white customer not being allowed in because of a dress code violation. He was wearing cargo shorts. She said she saw Black customers barred for a myriad of dress code violations while white customers were allowed in wearing the same attire.
“I once asked why a white woman was allowed to wear a hat, and I was told that her hat was stylish and that it matched the restaurant’s style and it was acceptable,” Cockerill said. She later quit, she said.
Will Perrotta worked as a bartender at the Atlas Group’s Loch Bar from March 2016 to June 2016. He said he was disturbed by the treatment of Black patrons.
“The seats near the bar were like cafeteria seating. No one wanted to sit there. That’s where they put the Black customers,” Perrotta said.
And when it came time to stock liquor for the bar, Perrotta said, one of the managers told him he didn’t purchase certain alcohol brands like Ciroc, a high-end vodka, because it attracted Black patrons. Hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs is a partner in the brand.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to order Ciroc because that brings in a clientele that I don’t want,” Perrotta recalled. He said he was uncomfortable with that and left the job as a result.
On Thursday, The Sun contacted bartenders at several Atlas restaurants — Loch Bar, Ouzo Beach, Ouzo Bay, Azumi, Tagliata and Choptank. None of the businesses sell Ciroc.
A former server who worked at Atlas from June 2017 to mid-March of this year, Amelia Randall, said some managers assumed that Black guests wouldn’t spend as much money, would tip poorly or would complain about the food.
She added this created a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby Black guests received poor treatment, then complained. “The managers will just be like, ‘Yeah, well, what did you expect?’” Randall said. She said she witnessed people frequently turned away because of the dress code — in particular, she said people of color and people who appeared not to have the money to spend.
“I also know that the dress code does not apply to specific people,” Randall said. “There are guests who are allowed to do and wear whatever they want.”
While owner Alex Smith has touted the patronage of Black celebrities such as Drake, Randall said that ordinary Black diners might be turned away over a dress code violation.
Smith last week said he was unaware of the allegation that Black celebrities are welcome while everyday Black diners could be refused over attire: “I think that’s absolutely disgusting. And that’s the first I’m hearing of it. And it’s not something that we do or practice.”
Randall said she was laid off in mid-March because of the pandemic and turned down an offer to return because she was worried about exposure to COVID-19.
Server Jenna Burlakoti says she worked at Loch Bar for a month before quitting June 25. She recalled that in mid-June, when the restaurant was doing reservations but also accepting walk-ins, a friend of Burlakoti’s came in. Burlakoti seated her friend, who is Black, at the bar, which had the same dress code as the restaurant. A manager told her friend that she had to leave because she was not dressed appropriately. Burlakoti said her friend was wearing black legging shorts, which came to the knee, and a button-down shirt over a tank top.
Burlakoti later questioned the manager about asking her friend to leave, since the restaurant had a more relaxed dress code earlier in the day.
“As far as I know, she had until 5:30,” Burlakoti remembered telling the manager. “They said as of that day, the [more restrictive] dress code began at 3:30.”
After the video incident, Burlakoti said, Atlas management emailed employees saying Smith would be available to talk with staff. Burlakoti met with Smith and a human resources employee for about an hour, she said. She recalled telling them that there was a race issue in the unequal application of the dress code, but that Smith told her it was not a race issue, and people were upset because a child was involved.
Atlas’ attorney, Scott Marder, said in his statement Thursday that while “former disgruntled employees, and others, will make allegations against Atlas, “it does not mean the allegations are true or made with pure motivation.”
Other employee statements Atlas released Thursday dispute allegations of racial discrimination and proudly describe a business where standards are high and leaders care about customers’ experience.
Simon Brown is general manager of The Bygone restaurant and identified himself as an African American. He wrote: “I have never in my 25 years in this business felt more included and that my voice means something as I do here at Atlas. It pained me to watch the incident at Ouzo Bay. It also pained me greatly to watch what the fallout was from it. I emphatically tell you and will repeat until everyone hears me, I do not work for a racist group. Did we make a huge mistake? 100%. Will we all learn from this and be better immediately? 100%. This can be and will be a teaching and learning point for a lot of people.”
Antonio Fliggins wrote that his company, Host Entertainment Services, has provided security at all the Atlas properties for more than two years. According to Sweeney, Fliggins’ employees help with dress code enforcement at the Atlas restaurants.
His company “has never discriminated or targeted anyone because of color, gender or religion,” wrote Fliggins, who is Black. “Neither has Atlas Restaurants ever instructed my company to do so.”
The company “has never [witnessed] any racism or discrimination to any minorities or people of color. The dress code, rules and policies of Atlas Restaurants are in no way to target any specific group or individuals.”
Black customers recount experiences
But people like Baltimore author Watkins said that his experience, and that of other Black customers, has been that these are not isolated incidents. He boycotts the restaurants.
“I’d rather eat out of a dumpster than at an Atlas restaurant,” he said last week.
Woodlawn resident Nadine Bellot, who worked as the executive assistant to the general manager of Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore from 2014 to 2018, frequented all the Atlas Group restaurants.
Bellot, who is Black, considered herself a regular at a number of their restaurants — knowing bartenders, servers and managers from her days as an employee at the hotel.
“I was off and just decided to go [to Azumi one day.] I had on sneakers and a casual outfit,” she recalled about a day she walked in with her mother.
An employee spotted Bellot’s white Nike Air Max 270 sneakers and told Bellot that she couldn’t sit in the restaurant. Bellot said she observed several white women wearing sneakers and Docksider shoes that she considered equally casual.
“I was hungry. I was upset. The first thing you feel is embarrassed,” Bellot said. She eventually was allowed to sit at the bar when a bartender recognized her.
“And then we sat there angry the whole time. Clearly, I saw the difference. Some people are able to come in. Some people are not. They absolutely pick and choose,” she said.
Bellot questions how certain Black patrons are treated.
“Do I have to be Champagne Papi? Do I have to be Drake to dine there?” she asked. “These policies are created to police black bodies. They have always had an air of, ‘We’ll take your money, but we don’t want you to be there.’”
Erika Maddox, who is Black, says she was a regular at Ouzo Bay until a hostess refused to admit her in May 2017 because of a dress code violation.
She was wearing distressed jeans that she had worn there before when she was turned away. Then Maddox spotted a white woman seated at the bar — which she said had the same dress code as the restaurant — in yoga pants and a tank top, with dripping wet hair. It’s unclear what the dress code was at the time.
“It was humiliating and embarrassing, especially because there were people who were around me wearing the same thing I was wearing,” Maddox said. “I agree that there should be a dress code. It’s necessary, but it needs to be equally enforced....You can fire the managers, but they’re just doing their job. We need to take a closer look at the CEOs and the unequal policies in place.”
Last week, Henry Walters, a bartender at several Atlas Group restaurants including Ouzo Bay, Ouzo Beach and Maximon, said he reached out to top leadership at Atlas with a seven-point-proposal outlining how to repair relationships with Marcia Grant and her son, as well as the Black community in Baltimore.
Walters, who is white, has worked for the group since spring of last year, said he and other employees were disgusted by the Ouzo Bay video.
He said when he met with the owners this week, Smith told him that “Black leaders” supported the dress code because it was a “safety issue.” Walters recalled Smith saying that Black leaders told him getting rid of the dress code was a bad idea.
In the interview with The Sun last week, Smith said Atlas had asked for feedback from prominent people of color in the community on the dress codes. He declined to name them.
Walters said the hour-long meeting with Smith, Smith’s brother, Eric, and a member of the company’s human resources team accomplished nothing.
“I feel like I was naïve to think that I could really go in there with Bible verses and have the changes that I wanted and need to have them take place,” Walters said. “I was lying to myself. I was lying to myself working there. I was lying to myself that I had the power to make the changes that needed to be made,” he said.
Walters added: “I think that the restaurant group is in need of radical change.” This past weekend, he quit.
Atlas is forming an advisory board that will discuss dress codes, among other issues, according to spokesman Sweeney. The company had announced it would would conduct diversity and inclusion training for staff.
Black patrons who spoke with The Sun say they just want to be treated like everyone else. Said Robyn Murphy: “We also have expectations of doing the nice things in town and want to be treated equally.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.
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Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers African-American neighborhoods, life and culture.