MIAMI – Seven men of Middle Eastern descent have sued a Denny's (search) restaurant franchisee and one of its managers for $28 million, saying they were kicked out because of their ancestry and compared to Usama Bin Laden (search ).
The men, who are all U.S. citizens, are seeking $4 million each from Restaurant Collection Inc., which owns the Denny's franchise in South Florida, and shift manager Eduardo Ascano, whom they say compared them to the Al Qaeda (search ) terrorist leader.
"This was a terrible act against Arab Americans," Alan C. Kauffman, one of the attorneys for the group, said Wednesday.
The seven men are of Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian descent and include a doctor, a real estate agent, an insurance broker and a restaurant owner. They live in Broward and Palm Beach counties. They filed suit last week in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court (search ). No trial date has been set.
Restaurant Collection's owner, Alfonso Fernandez, said in a statement Wednesday that the men's allegations are false.
"We are truly committed to treating all of our guests with respect, and we take every guest concern seriously," Fernandez wrote. "These allegations of discrimination were immediately and thoroughly investigated by an independent, outside agency that found no evidence whatsoever to support the guests' claims."
Fernandez did not identify the agency. However, an investigation by the Florida Commission on Human Rights said "reasonable cause does exist" to support the discrimination claim.
The seven men say they went to Fernandez's restaurant in Florida City, on the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, about 2 a.m. Jan. 11, 2004. They say they were seated, given menus and received their drink orders. But an hour later, their food hadn't arrived. One of the men — Ehab Albaradi — approached Ascano and inquired about the group's order, the lawsuit says.
Ascano allegedly said: "Bin Laden is the manager of the kitchen" and "Bin Laden is in charge."
Albaradi and a second man, Usama El-A-Baidy, decided to speak to Ascano again about their order.
Angered, Ascano told the short order cooks in the kitchen to cancel the group's order, the suit claims.
El-A-Baidy then asked Ascano why he had used the name bin Laden.
"We don't serve bin Ladens here! You guys, out!" Ascano allegedly said.
A group of officers from the Miami-Dade County and Homestead police departments eating at the Denny's also told the seven men to leave and threatened to arrest them if they didn't, the lawsuit said. The officers have not been identified, Kauffman said.
Miami-Dade police spokeswoman Cathy Webb said Thursday that the department found no record of a complaint being filed by the men and because so many months have passed, it will be difficult to determine who the officers were. Homestead Capt. Ed Bowe said no complaints were filed with the department and its records show no on-duty officers were at the restaurant at the time.
Ascano no longer works for the company, Fernandez said. Ascano does not have a listed phone number and could not be reached for comment.
The 1,600-restaurant chain, which has annual sales that exceed $2 billion, settled a 1994 lawsuit for $54.4 million that accused the chain of asking blacks to prepay for meals. Since then, it has faced at least six more discrimination lawsuits filed by African-Americans and Hispanics and has been investigated in at least two cases involving discrimination against people of Middle Eastern descent.
Debbie Atkins, a spokeswoman at Denny's Corp.'s Spartanburg, S.C., headquarters said Thursday that the company stands by the independent investigation that cleared Restaurant Collection, but reiterated "we have zero tolerance for discrimination." She said the company has instituted several diversity and anti-discrimination programs in recent years.