Seven women are suing Urth Caffe in Laguna Beach for discrimination, alleging they were targeted last month for being "visibly Muslim" while wearing head scarves and ordered to leave the restaurant before they finished eating.
The April 22 ouster "left us shaken, disrespected and shocked," said Soondus Ahmed, a software engineer. Ahmed said her group was ushered out by two police officers after a manager said they had violated the eatery's policy allowing just a 45-minute stay during peak times. "We committed no crime, and it felt surreal that we were escorted out."
Another plaintiff, Sara Farsakh, said the manager "came up to us and said it was rush hour," but around us, "there were at least 20 empty tables." Farsakh, a college student, said she had gone to the cafe once before with her husband without a problem.
All the plaintiffs live in Orange County or were born there. Six of the seven regularly wear a head scarf — or hijab — as "an expression of their religion," said Mohammad Tajsar, their attorney. He cited a pattern "of neighborhood hate crimes against Muslims," including egg-throwing, tire slashings and racial taunts during March and April this year, even though the restaurant is popular with the large Muslim American population in Orange County as well as tourists and students visiting from the Middle East.
"These women were singled out and targeted" because Urth Caffe "chose not to make this location a welcome space," he said. His clients seek to end alleged discriminatory practices and to hold those responsible "accountable, so these incidents do not happen again." They are also seeking compensation for "loss of dignity."
Restaurant managers on Tuesday declined to comment, and calls to Urth Caffe headquarters in Los Angeles did not receive a response.
Laguna Beach police officers who arrived at the scene that evening "did see empty tables, but there was no survey done of how many people were in the restaurant," department spokesman Jason Kravetz said. The manager called police complaining that the women did not respond to requests to leave. Accompanied by the officers, "they very respectfully left, having paid their bill," Kravetz said.
According to the lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court, the women had gathered on a Friday night to meet old and new friends over pizza, pecan pie and coffee when a manager interrupted them about 8 p.m. to ask if they were waiting for more orders.
The same manager returned before 8:15 p.m., saying he "expected a busy evening and needed to clear tables of patrons who had been seated for longer than 45 minutes," according to the lawsuit.
"I felt so embarrassed because we were just talking among ourselves, not doing any harm, yet he demanded that we leave," Farsakh recalled.
Other customers expressed support for her group, but management wouldn't budge, she said.
"I am doing this for Muslim American women who did not have courage or means to speak up when this happens to them," Ahmed added.
Local residents said they were surprised at allegations of discrimination in their town.
Goff Stepian, a surfing instructor who has called Laguna Beach home for more than 30 years, said: "I'm bitter and sorry that happened to them. Everybody wants the right to express their culture."
Courtney Burleigh, lunching with her parents, said she and her family meet at Urth Caffe weekly. "We're just an open community," Burleigh said. "I hope this doesn't reflect badly of the place that we all love."
Carol Duquesnel, her mother, said she has dined at the cafe "so many times when there are people wearing burkas and no one gives them another look. We are welcoming."