The owner of Matsumoto Restaurant in Larchmont says he is being unfairly accused of racism,
his business has dropped off more than 50% due to the recent controversy, and his attorney, Stewart McMillan, Jr. claims, “This is largely about money. The plaintiffs want the teenager’s college paid for.”
The parents of 17 year old Abigail (“Abby”) Brammer claim she was fired from her job because she is black. They are demanding the restaurant agree to an injunction prohibiting future discrimination on the basis of race, proactively search for an African American employee and pay a “modest” settlement, according to her attorney.
In an exclusive interview with theLoop Thursday evening, Abby Brammer and her friend Rebecca (“Becca”) Kitsis, both of whom graduated from Mamaroneck High School in June, spoke about the events of March 20 that led to Brammer’s lawsuit. Abby has also filed a complaint with the EEOC.
“I was completely stunned,” Abby says. “Out of all the communities where I have been raised I had never confronted anything like this.”
Abby’s mother, Kathy Brammer, added, “We have had to deal with some stuff (over the years) that was more subtle. But this was blatant.”
According to the young women, Becca, who had been working at Matsumoto for a month, called restaurant owner Mardy (sic) Cheng to let him know she had to quit her hostess job to concentrate on school work, but that she had a friend with restaurant experience she was willing to bring in and train for the job. The position paid between $7 and $9 an hour, depending on the night of the week. Becca says Cheng agreed she should bring Abby in.
Becca brought Abby, who is African American, with her to work that evening; Abby says she began training on a touch screen cash register and filled two carry-out orders. Becca says it was customary for Cheng to have potential employees begin trying out before he had met them.
After observing Abby for about ten minutes, Becca says, “Mardy pulled me aside. ‘We can’t have her here,’ he says. ‘She’s black.’”
According to the complaint Cheng said, “Rebecca, I’m not a racist, okay? But this is about business. I just don’t think it would be good if your friend worked here. See, this is a Japanese restaurant, you understand? So it’s bad for business….I’m not a racist – I don’t care- black, white, brown, I don’t care…but I don’t think it would be good for us if your friend worked here.”
Becca says she then explained to Cheng that this was illegal, and, according to the complaint he acknowledged, “maybe it is illegal.”
Becca’s mother, Dr. Elizabeth Kitsis, says “(Matsumoto’s) approach was illegal. In this country we have a legal process.”
“They knew just what to do,” their pro bono attorney, Joshua Friedman, says. “They studied Reconstruction in High School. They were armed for bear.” He added, “Abby never had to confront before that opportunities for her might be different.”
But Matsumoto disputes this version of events.
“Abby simply was not the right person for the job,” says McMillan. "Cheng was trying to convey that a hostess in a Japanese restaurant should be bubbly and smiling and this girl was too shy. Her friend wrongly interpreted Mr. Cheng’s motivation to be racist.”
McMillan added that Cheng, who has been speaking English “only six years,” has five Hispanic employees.
The young women organized a protest outside Matsumoto June 24 by posting the announcement on a Facebook page. About 40 MHS students were there. Since the protest and the ensuing press coverage, “the restaurant’s been empty,” McMillan says. McMillan said he was told the Brammers’ attorney helped organize the protest. Friedman told theLoop the protest was the girls’ idea.
Matsumoto’s lawyer further says the other side has indicated that because Abby was trying to earn money for college at this part-time job, the settlement should include money for her college tuition.
“The most she would have earned over the summer would have been about $2000," McMillan says. “I really think they’re losing the forest for the trees.”
"This whole thing has gotten ridiculous," said one local merchant who knows Cheng, who did not want to be identified. "It appears that this was a misunderstanding. People are so quick to sue instead of sitting down to talk."
Abby is planning to go to the LDS Business College in Salt Lake City, Utah in the Fall.
“This really prepared me,” she said. “Now I definitely know I really have to work harder at trying to help people get over stereotypes.”
–reported by Polly Kreisman