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Russian Redressing : Outrage Prompts Gorky’s Cafe to Give 500 Meals to Mission After Ejecting 25 Homeless People From Free Buffet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Culture clash at Gorky’s, Round 2:

When we last left this saga, a heretofore unknown art director named Franc Novak was battling Gorky’s Cafe and Russian Brewery, a downtown Los Angeles eatery with a taste for the avant-garde, over its refusal to serve 25 homeless people a free buffet dinner he had won from the restaurant.

Thursday, reeling from the complaints of dozens of irate customers, including a nun from Norwalk who vowed a boycott, Gorky’s raised the white flag--with a free dinner of soup and sandwiches for 500 at the Fred Jordan Mission on Skid Row.

“I want the community to understand right now that Gorky’s has always supported the homeless,” declared owner Fred Powers, who said he fears his restaurant’s reputation as a bastion of social consciousness and charitable giving has been ruined.

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“We have given jobs to the homeless,” Powers said. “We didn’t serve grapes when Cesar Chavez was on strike. We try to maintain a stand on causes that we feel are causes of the people.”

Meanwhile, Gorky’s chief downtown competitor, Vickman’s Restaurant and Bakery, jumped into the fray, telling Novak that he is welcome to bring in 25 homeless people for a free meal whenever he wants. Similar offers came from the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which runs a soup kitchen in South-Central Los Angeles, and the owner of a pair of restaurants in Santa Monica, a city that some have dubbed “the home of the homeless.”

“It ticked me off,” said restaurateur Fred Deni. “I feel that is a real slap in the face toward people’s self-esteem and humanity.”

Novak, who was himself besieged with calls and requests for television interviews, said: “I think it’s amazing that people have responded so positively. A lot of people called me saying, ‘It’s real great, what you’ve done.’ But I don’t really feel like I’ve put myself out.”

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Round 1 in this curious clash occurred Tuesday evening when Novak, who had won a free buffet for 25 at Gorky’s, decided to pass out the dinner tickets along Skid Row. But when he and his new-found friends showed up for their food, they were informed by Gorky’s management that the offer was a promotion designed to attract new customers, who would presumably spend the evening mingling with the guests of the other winners.

The restaurant management, citing fears about the safety of their other diners, ordered the group to leave, threatening to call the police. But what really annoyed Novak was that they refused his request for takeout.

On Wednesday, Gorky’s management defended the decision, saying the restaurant--which last year raised $5,000 at a benefit for the homeless--must put security first. But by Thursday, with the phones ringing nonstop and Gorky’s employees furiously preparing sandwiches for the evening meal at the mission, restaurant owner Powers was rethinking things.

“I don’t think the manager handled it well at all,” he said. “I think he should have asked the other people in the room how they feel about these people joining the party and if they said OK, then fine. And if the reception was otherwise he should have given them food.”

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Powers said he hopes the dinner at the mission will demonstrate what he described as Gorky’s continuing commitment to help the homeless. But the offer failed to ease the anger of some of Gorky’s longtime customers, several of whom said they felt betrayed by an institution they had come to respect.

“That doesn’t cut it for me,” said Christopher Fairchild, a Los Angeles lawyer. “It’s a token gesture that doesn’t address the real outrage, which is turning people away at the door. The only way to make up for that error is to have homeless people come in and sit down and have a nice warm meal at Gorky’s, not at some mission.”

It seemed the only people who were happy about the affair were the folks at the Fred Jordan Mission.

“This is great!” said Willie Jordan, the mission’s president and widow of its founder. “I understand there has been a little controversy over this, but for the people on the streets who are homeless and hungry, they will benefit regardless of the controversy. Someone wanted to feed 25 people. Now 500 will be fed.”

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