NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The man in charge of training Cracker Barrel managers is black and said Thursday it is ridiculous to believe he would let racists run the company's restaurants and discriminate against its patrons.
The Tennessee company fired back with a news conference in Nashville as the NAACP in Washington announced it was joining a racial discrimination suit filed in Georgia against Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores Inc.
"I definitely respect the NAACP, no doubt about that, but I think in this case they've been misinformed," said Thomas Pate, Cracker Barrel's vice president for management training and development for 15 years. "It's just unbelievable that I would put up with that type of behavior. I wouldn't, period."
Norm Hill, senior vice president of human resources, who is also black and called himself a card-carrying member of the NAACP, said the lawsuit "presents a false picture of Cracker Barrel performance and the performance of its 50,000 employees both black and white."
The suit originally was filed last December, and an amended complaint was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Rome, Ga.
The NAACP and 41 other plaintiffs in the class-action suit are seeking $100 million in damages from the Lebanon-based restaurant chain, which owns and operates 450 restaurants in 41 states.
Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, stood with four of the plaintiffs during a news conference in which they claim they were denied service or waited longer to be served than white customers, or were seated away from white customers, often in a smoking section despite asking for nonsmoking.
"It seems that at Cracker Barrel they have not come very far since the days of the lunch counter sit-ins, but the rest of the country has," Mfume said. "We will not tolerate segregated seating, refusal of service or second-class treatment anywhere."
David Sanford, an attorney with Gordon, Silberman, Wiggins & Childs, said "there is overwhelming evidence that Cracker Barrel engages in practices that discriminate against African-Americans. And by joining us in the lawsuit, the NAACP is helping to shine a spotlight on this pervasive culture of race discrimination."
The plaintiffs and some 400 witnesses, including Cracker Barrel employees and customers, claim black customers also were subjected to racial slurs and served food taken from the trash. They say such actions were ignored or condoned by Cracker Barrel management.
Cracker Barrel spokeswoman Julie Davis said the allegations are "absolutely false" and that three of the four plaintiffs who attended the Washington news conference received apologies from the store manager and the corporation, and were offered gift baskets or free meals. The company did not receive any complaints from the fourth plaintiff, she said.
Donald M. Turner, Cracker Barrel's president and chief operating officer, said the lawsuit is a "PR attempt to get us to make a large lump sum settlement to this particular law firm. We're going to fight this. We're not going to cave in."
The law firm also is representing former and current Cracker Barrel employees in a suit over wages; many of whom are listed as witnesses in the racial discrimination suit.