An alleged act of racism boiled over into the streets--and into the national spotlight--this weekend as demonstrators picketed a Thai restaurant whose owner admitted that he had added a tip onto a bill simply because the customers were black.
"The issue here is that there is a member of the community who feels free to announce his racist opinions and discriminate against black people," said attorney Cynthia Everett, president of the Black Lawyers' Assn.
For the second consecutive evening, about 100 protesters marched Saturday in front of Thai Toni, which was closed. Among demonstrators' signs was one reading "DWB--Dining While Black."
"This is a wake-up call for all America," said state Rep. James Bush III (D-Miami), who took part in the protest organized by the local branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. "Racism is very much alive as we begin the 21st century."
The controversy sparked by Hiromi Takarada, owner of the restaurant in the middle of fashionable South Beach, represents a public relations black eye for greater Miami, where tourism is a $12-billion-a-year business.
"I've been in this town 30 years, and I've never heard of a selective tipping policy based on race or anything else. That's why I was so shocked," said William D. Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Visitors and Convention Bureau, which promptly dropped Thai Toni from its membership roster when the incident became public. "I think we showed that we won't tolerate this behavior."
Charles Thompson, a 40-year-old Miami travel counselor for American Express, said that he and Theresa L. White, 48, had finished their dinner of snapper and spring rolls last month when he was presented a $51 bill to which a 15% gratuity had been added. At the bottom of the check a stamped notation explained that the tip had been tacked on "for your convenience."
Thompson said he had dined at Thai Toni several times and had never before seen the tip added.
After comparing his tab with that of nearby white diners--to which no tip was appended--Thompson said he confronted Takarada and was told the tip had been added because "black people don't tip well."
Incensed, Thompson said, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. The responding police officer reported that Takarada repeated the reasoning for adding the tip.
Thompson and White complained next to the state Commission on Human Relations and then filed a federal lawsuit seeking unspecified damages.
The state weighed in last week, when Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth filed a lawsuit in circuit court charging the restaurant with violating Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. Takarada could face a fine of up to $10,000.
Butterworth called Takarada's actions "totally unconscionable" and compared the incident with the discrimination suffered routinely by African Americans before the civil rights movement.
In a news conference at the restaurant Thursday, Takarada and his attorney, Kent Harrison Robbins, tried to defuse the controversy by calling the incident a misunderstanding. Denying he is a racist, Takarada said that what he told Thompson was, "Sometimes blacks don't tip well."
Demonstrators on Saturday found that Takarada had taped a sign to the restaurant's front door: "We are very sorry. Please forgive us."
Takarada has owned Thai Toni for 13 years and also operates a second restaurant in Miami Beach. But during the news conference he described himself as a small-business man unfamiliar with some American customs and laws.
On Friday the restaurateur went on national television with his lawyer to explain further. "He should not have said that; but it was not a racist statement per se," Robbins said.
But Florida Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul Hancock was unimpressed. "The issue this case raised is huge," he said. "There is a message here to all businesses in Florida: Our economy relies a lot on tourism, and when people visit Florida, the only color that should matter is green."
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this report.