Desi Vega’s Incident Continues a Pattern of Racist Culture at Some New Orleans Restaurants

Photo courtesy Desi Vega’s Steakhouse, Facebook

On the evening of February 26th, James Washington and his wife Yasmin Racquel settled into Desi Vega’s Seafood and Prime Steaks, in Metairie, for a date night. After what Washington described as an evening of good food and good laughs, Washington was dismayed when he received the check. He saw that a 20% gratuity had been added without explanation.

Washington said that he has experience in the restaurant business; he previously worked at Praline Connection and Ruby Tuesday’s. He said he prefers to leave a larger tip when deserved.

In a Facebook post, Washington described his feelings, “A 20% tip for me is for par (or subpar) service.  I respect waiters and bartenders, so I like to do much more.  Nevertheless, I thought the automatic gratuity was weird for a party of two.  So I asked our server if this was standard.  He said ‘yes, we add 20% to all of our bills.’”

Washington, who is African American, called the restaurant from his table and spoke with the manager, who also claimed that 20% gratuity for a two-party table was standard. However, after speaking with friends who had previously dined at Desi Vega’s, and speaking with White patrons at the establishment who had not been charged an automatic gratuity, Washington concluded that he and his wife had been racially profiled and the charge had been added to only their bill.

After Washington spoke with the manager at the table, the manager admitted he had lied and the gratuity was added to only Washington’s check.

Washington explained on Facebook, “He confirmed that he and the server prejudged us.  Said he felt bad so he kept the lie going.  Said he was in a ‘precarious’ position.  Said he didn’t mean to racially profile us but his server asked him to do this to us so he went along with it. Said he was ‘embarrassed and humiliated.’ Promised he’d never do it again.  Said they never did it before.”

Washington was understandably angry.

His Facebook post concluded, “So, you mean to tell me that my wife and I, without any dispute at the table, gave off a vibe because of the way that we looked, that made you think we were the only couple your restaurant has ever served that wasn’t going to leave a tip?  So you all got together, changed your policy, and lied about it? And, didn’t tell the truth until I approached another couple in the restaurant?”

He continued, “In the grand scheme of things, a 20% gratuity is nothing.  But it’s a small sample size of how some people look at African Americans and assume whatever they want to assume.  The expedience of how the employee and the manager got together, conspired, and covered for each other makes matters worse. Needless to say, we won’t be going back.”

Washington’s post went viral over the weekend, with locals on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook promising to boycott Desi Vega’s entirely. Washington’s post received nearly 3,000 shares, as of Sunday evening.

A statement from Desi Vega’s Seafood and Prime Steaks was posted late Sunday night. In the statement, Desi Vega confirms Washington’s account, apologized and admitted to a member of their staff lying about it after the fact.

The statement read, in part: “I would like to publicly apologize to Mr. And Mrs. Washington who did, in fact, improperly have an auto tip added to their bill by one of my employees at Desi Vegas in Metarie… These 2 employees have been immediately suspended without pay, pending further review. Desi Vega’s stands firmly against discrimination or profiling of any kind. I met personally with Mr. And Mrs. Washington this afternoon and they are truly an impressive couple. They went through their concerns with me and I express how disappointed I was with what happened to them.”

The statement continued and said that, in the future, all Desi Vega restaurants will have publicly posted tipping policies and all employees will undergo racial bias and sensitivity training. The statement concluded with an apology to the community and their plan to continue their work with Café Reconcile, per the café’s request.

This isn’t the first time a local restaurant has come under controversy due to race relations. In May 2020, Tracey’s Irish Channel Bar came under fire when the bar’s Facebook page commented, “I thought all lives matter” in response to an Irish Channel resident offering “Black Lives Matter” signs to neighbors and protestors against racism and police violence.  The owner of Tracey’s Bar, Jeffrey Carreras, later apologized for the comment.

In November 2019, Lafayette businessman Brandon Hargrave, who ran a Walk-Ons franchise in Covington, lost his job after making racially-insensitive comments about trick-or-treaters on Facebook. Hargrave later issued an apology for the comments, but the damage had been done; President and COO of Walk-On’s, Scott Taylor called the comment “unacceptable”.

Whether the statement and apology, issued by Desi Vega, is enough to satisfy those calling for a boycott of the restaurant, remains to be seen.

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