Rapper T.I. leads protest against Atlanta restaurant

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Rapper T.I. was joined by Atlanta television personalities Ernestine Johnson and Jay Morrison, calling Friday night at two Atlanta locations for a boycott of restaurant chain Houston's over allegations of mistreatment of African American customers.

The group of several dozen protesters marched from the Houston's on Peachtree Road to the location on Lenox Road.

The restaurant, however, maintains that a recent ordeal between Johnson, Morrison, and guests at a restaurant was a misunderstanding over the seating policy for large groups. A lengthy statement of the management's explanation of the ordeal is outlined further in this article.

Johnson's tweet over an alleged October 6 incident at the Lenox Road location set off a media firestorm, and ignited discussions among other Atlanta-based entertainers over concerns of discrimination against African American customers and experiences from other entertainers.

"I felt completely disrespected. There was a lack of regard for our presence and our dollars at that location. I felt discriminated against," Johnson said, who told FOX 5 News her group of seven arrived at Houston's hoping to be seated as a group, but was told the restaurant could not accommodate the group of that size.

"Friday we came in for a late lunch, as a party of seven. [The hostess said] we don't seat seven and we don't seat large parties," Johnson said, then volunteering to the hostess to split the parties into two tables.

"She says, 'We still can't do that-- we still can't seat you,'" Johnson said, "It was ridiculous. It was very bizarre-- why we couldn't be sat as a party of four, with no sound reason."

"They refused to let us be sat as a party of four and had no real policy behind it. I think they wanted to choose who they sat that day and it wasn't us," said Morrison, who explained that his group was then asked to leave the location.

"It was a power trip... and we don't believe that's the treatment they give everybody," he said. Morrison said a wait list was never offered as an option to the party, but management claimed in the statement sent to FOX 5 News that they offered the option.

A social media post by Johnson sparked the interest of T.I., who claimed his wife and other African American patrons have been excessively scrutinized as guests because of clothing or other issues, while other patrons have no problems.

"We are tired of being treated unfairly when we come here... There isn't this one case and one incident alone that would warrant this type of response," T.I. said. "If the policy is only enforced when you feel like it with a certain group of people... that is discriminatory."

Hillstone Restaurant Group, when asked by FOX 5, would not comment on any other allegations by T.I. or other celebrities, but released the following lengthy statement on the Oct. 6 incident:

"Hillstone is proud of the diversity of our guests and staff. We are also proud Houston’s has had a home in the great City of Atlanta for almost 40 years. We have zero tolerance for discrimination, and are committed to making sure all of our guests feel welcome. For these reasons, we are saddened that a recent interaction with a group of guests in Atlanta has been called into question by some who have unfortunately viewed a guest relations incident in racial terms. 

"Two of the guests involved in last week’s incident have retained a lawyer to represent them. Accordingly, we are constrained in our public comments. Hillstone has, however, reached out to the guests’ attorney several times to request a meeting to resolve his clients’ concerns and even invited them to lunch before today’s protest.  In response, we have been advised that the meeting may not occur until after a planned protest.  The invitation is open, and we await their response. 

"Wait times at our restaurants are often long, and most of our locations have very few tables that accommodate more than six guests comfortably. At our Lenox location, where the incident occurred, we have only two tables where parties of seven can be seated comfortably, both of which had been seated shortly before this party (of at least seven) arrived. We offered to add this party’s name to the waitlist for one of those large tables, but upon hearing the “wait time” could be over an hour, the party informed us they did not want to wait.  Instead, the party asked to split up and sit at two separate tables.  When told that the store’s general policy is not to “split parties,” the guests strongly expressed their frustration, causing a disturbance and resulting in the guests being asked to leave. 

"People have asked why we did not agree to split this party and seat them at separate tables. Our policy against splitting single parties into multiple tables is rooted in the dynamics of groups.  Through our years of experience, we have observed that a large group split into multiple tables continues to function as a single group.  Understandably, friends want to sit with each other, talk to each other, and share their dining experience together.  These dynamics can impair the dining experience of other guests and hinder our ability to provide service at the high level to which we strive.  Accordingly, our website informs guests that parties of six or more may not be able to be accommodated at our restaurants. The policy is not linked to the race of our guests.

"Allegations of discrimination and racial profiling are wholly inconsistent with the African American management and staff working in the restaurant, our initial offer to seat this party as soon as one of our larger tables became available, and the large number of African American guests who regularly dine with us at the restaurant, including at that time of this incident.  As a result of this unfortunate incident, however, we are reviewing the application of our general policy regarding splitting parties, and will continue to make refinements to improve our guests’ experience. We are in the hospitality business in the heart of a city known as the cradle of the Civil Rights movement, and we are always looking for ways to improve the experience of our wonderfully diverse customer base.

"The events of October 6 are unfortunate and regrettable. We look forward to meeting with Mr. Morrison, Ms. Johnson and their attorney at the earliest opportunity with the hope of amicably addressing their concerns.  We hope to continue to employ our diverse staff and to serve all of our guests with the same good food and service all of Atlanta has come to expect at Houston’s.  Accordingly, we request your patience and understanding as we work to resolve this unfortunate matter."

Johnson, Morrison, and the various parties said they planned to meet with Houston's management after the Friday night protest.