Opinion: ‘My Experience Working in a Racist Restaurant on Long Island’

Illustration by m.a.1.a.y.a

The following story is an opinion piece submitted by Long Island native, Peter—a restaurant worker who has worked in both Nassau and Suffolk County. As I edited this piece, on June 9th, a police helicopter hovered approximately 200 feet above my apartment, as over a thousand peaceful protestors took to my hometown’s Main Street to assert what should be obvious: Black Lives Matter. 

Yesterday’s was the group’s second protest in my town. Their first outing, on Sunday, was met with chants of “Go back to the ghetto” while crowds of ‘counter protestors’ lined the streets. This is the context in which I edited this story, and, as protests rise up all across Long Island, I know this is the context in which you’ll read it.

But, of course, this is just one individual’s story. If his experiences differ from your own, and you’d like to tell us how, please reach out to us and share your story. Because if the events of the past couple of weeks have made one thing clear, it’s this: George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, but the work of making our country greater and more equitable is happening right here. Please join us in doing that work. — Meghan Harlow, Editor

I’ve been fired from two restaurants; the first, an ultra-hip pirate ship of a place in the coolest neighborhood in all of New York. The abridged version of the story is this: I got into an argument with a co-worker after a long shift, lost my cool, slammed a door on my way out, broke it, and was let go for, well, “breaking stuff.”  It was a bummer. For a time, I loved that job; it essentially defined who I was as a person. Because I worked at the coolest place on Earth, I was, then, in fact, way cool.

But make no mistake: I wasn’t always the best employee. There were times when I was rude to guests—especially if some Karen complained about the viscosity of her viognier. Just as there were times when I fought with managers over shifts, or yelled at co-workers, or drank on the job—something I, like many restaurant workers, did a lot

That is all to say, of course, that I’m a Tier 1 shit head. Let’s be clear on that from the start.

There was a time, though, when I did care and would go above and beyond for any guest. But I got older. My back started to hurt in the mornings. My feet ached as I lay in bed hoping to get a call saying, “It’s over, man! You don’t have to go back!” So, again, I drank—more and more. This helped ease the burden of not being my best self at all times.

After I was canned, I went a month without a job. I was denied unemployment because I caused damage to the restaurant. Bills piled higher and higher. My mortgage payment went unpaid. I borrowed money from my brother. Things were getting beyond tight at the house. It was dire. Finally, a job came my way.

I took a gig in a brand new place opening in one of Long Island’s most bustling villages. The chef was a big deal here on Strong Island, a force. He was broad shouldered, African-American, with talent and drive in equal—and immense—measure. He was a few years older than me, had some kids, and at first we got along great. It seemed that I found a new best friend.

The venture started promising enough. We had some nice press, the first few weeks went well, and it seemed like I was going to make some loot and start to climb out of my financial hole. But, unfortunately, the place never took off, the money was terrible, and my and the chef’s personalities just didn’t mesh. I decided to cut bait.

This time, I had some intel on a spot: a seemingly chill space in Nassau County. This place was also helmed by a big deal chef. I interviewed, was offered a trail, and quit the village spot.

This new place would eventually become the second restaurant I’d be fired from.

On a coolness level this place was a step below a lot of the other spots I had worked, but it was busy. That’s all I cared about. Money. I was in the hole big time and just needed to find a way to survive.

I showed up my first day, met my new teammates and heard a booming voice as I was upstairs getting a tour of the facilities: “I hear you know my friend!” he said. 

I looked down and found my new chef. He was chopping scallions and had a wide, toothy grin. I went downstairs and shook his hand; his enveloped mine as he gave a vigorous pump.

We proceeded to go into what I thought was an easy-going bash session of my last job. “Yeah, he’s not that good of a chef,” said my new employer. “Yeah, working with him was hell,” I said back. You know, normally petty things you say when you meet someone new and find out that you share a mutual acquaintance that neither of you like. But then the timbre of our conversation changed. “Oh, and your old boss, he’s a . . . ” And that’s when he dropped it right there in front of me. The N-word. Hard R.

Just like that. So easily. So effortlessly. It ripped through his mouth, into my ears, and turned my face a bright shade of red.

I’d seen racism from afar. There was the white kid on the baseball team in college, yelling about being robbed by black people, and Keifer Sutherland’s performance in A Time To Kill—but still, it was never said to me. My new boss even said it in a whisper, for only him and I to hear, as if he were speaking in secret code and thought I knew the language.

Here it was, the movie moment I thought would never happen to me. I’d rehearsed this scene a million times. All the heroic things I’d say if I were thrust into this position. White people do this, you know. We’ve watched so many movies with short white guys saving black people from institutional peril that we wait for our moment to play Christ.

“This, sir, is America!” is what I’d thought I say—but I didn’t. I didn’t actually say anything. I just stood there, frozen. Like so many white people who have claimed to have a black best friend or voted for Obama twice, I did nothing. Instead, I continued to work for this person and his equally racist partner for over a year.

This is how it went down every day. It was tough. Every shift I’d have to hear a barrage of slurs from either this chef or the majority owner. To get through it all, I told myself I was a good person, that I believed in equal rights, not this nonsense! Yet, during my time serving upscale salads and sandwiches to the upper class of Nassau County, I was complicit in my bosses’ racism. In turn, I was a racist—because that’s how complicity works.

Every shift was filled with vile words directed at people of color, at people of different faiths, and at women. And still, every day I’d approach my tables, make conversation and then lie to people midway through their meals. “Oh, this food is amazing!” they’d say. “This seems like a great place to work.”

I wanted to say: “Bruh, this guy’s back in the kitchen making dead slave jokes and talking about rape. It actually sucks here.”

But instead I’d say: “Yeah, sure.” Or, if I needed more money from this person, I’d say: “Oh yeah, it’s the best!”

The truth is: You don’t really know whom you’re giving your money to when you go out to eat. Most of the time, you’re not going to know what’s in that person’s heart. Do their beliefs systems match up with yours? Does that matter to you when you want an ice-cold beer and a place to sit and watch the game?

It’s unfathomable to think that a bigot could dim the lights so well, or design an organic wine list—but racists can make delicious food as well. Some racists just turn in their klan hood for a chef’s toque. Racists hide in plain sight all the time. It’s unsettling. How would you even know that the person who cooked your appetizer to perfection was just moments earlier telling the only black employee that he should change his name to Midnight because his skin is shades darker than his own? You’d have to ask, “Hey, is the guy who made these potato skins a racist?” Do you think your server or bartender would tell you? Nope, for the same reason I never stepped up: They need jobs.

I told myself over and over again: The second I don’t need this gig, I’m going to scream in their damn faces. I’m going to let them know how it is! But I’d talk myself out of jumping ship to someplace new. I’d have to start over with bad shifts. I’d make less money. I’d throw my family’s schedule into disarray. I’d never catch up financially. The excuses went on and on.

So, instead, I continued to laugh nervously at the jokes. I continued to grab drinks after work with them. I even accepted occasional rides home because getting an Uber was too expensive. Sure, I’d have to hear about how great our neighborhood could be as soon as we got rid of all the N-words and S-words, but I’d save $15. 

The hospitality industry talks big about making whatever restaurant you choose to spend your evening in feel like home. The assumption among diners, then, is if an establishment feels inviting, then the people who run the place must also be inviting to all. But that isn’t always true.

A space is not inviting if it’s not inviting to its staff, as well. One team, one dream! No one should feel like they can’t go to work, or dread another afternoon with their racist boss. The longer I stayed, the more angst built inside me. As soon as one shift ended, I immediately dreaded the next one. I drank more. I drank before every shift. My service suffered. Eventually, I was fired. They got me before I could get them.

It was more than upsetting to be relieved of duty. Besides the fact that I didn’t have a job, it sucked because they won. I spent so much time with these racists and all the shit I wanted to say to them, “Shut up,” “You’re wrong,” or simply, “I quit.”

I didn’t stand up for myself or the people they denigrated every day—and what did it get me? Nothing. Not standing up to these racists is the biggest mistake of my life.

Earlier this month, in Huntington Village, there was a peaceful march for social justice organized by a young black man. Part of that protest was live streamed by a local restaurant owner who took it upon himself to give a running commentary of the protest on social media. He resorted to the usual racist tropes­–hack jokes about watermelons, calling young black protestors savages and animals, truly awful behavior. He also claimed to have thwarted the protest from coming down his block (when, in reality, the protest took place several blocks away).

His behavior was reminiscent of the conduct I allowed to happen right in front of me; the ease at which he could turn on the racism. The bluster he portrayed that he was bigger than the protestors, or the movement they represented. Then I thought about him smiling as he handed another slice of pizza to a person of color—something he’s absolutely done in the past and hopes, for the sake of his business, to do many, many times again.

The only difference between this man and my old bosses was that he posted his racist diatribes in public. He got caught. And that’s the thing: As customers, we’ll never really know whom it is we’re giving our money to, unless people like me report what they see or hear. No matter the size or scope of the act, it’s important for white people to step up and say enough.

This is where I can anticipate your criticism. “Hey man, they’re just jokes! Get over it!” Well, no, they’re not “just jokes.” This isn’t an if-a-black person-doesn’t-hear-a-racist-joke-did-it-really-happen, kind of thing.  Sorry, bro. It’s still racist. Would my boss have suddenly stopped being a racist if I spoke up? No. But maybe he wouldn’t have continued to use that language around me or the rest of the staff, possibly creating a safer work environment. Or maybe he would’ve told me kick rocks! Either way, it would’ve been a better outcome than the one I ultimately made for myself.

In the years I’ve spent in restaurants, I’ve worked with maybe nine black people. Seriously. Think about how many people of color you’ve had serve you.  Now, how many of them weren’t at a resort? How many of them were in your local joint? The answer is probably not many. Why is that? 

I wish I could go back in time and tell my bosses that “I don’t work with racists,” but I can’t. What I can do, though, is not let it happen again. In the meantime, I hope my friends can forgive me for my lack of action. I’ll work to instill better values in my children, so they can walk through life demanding equality more loudly than I have. And I’ll be a better person. I’ll stop saying stupid things like, “I don’t see color, I just see the person.” Of course I see color. We all do. The work is to see the color and treat everyone equally anyway. 

That’s the work I’m doing as I enter the conversation swirling around the world, our country, and our island. I’m here. I’m listening. And I want to help.

I have a thousand regrets, but my biggest is this: That it took another police murder of a black man, and a world seemingly united for racial justice, for me to stop acting like a shit head and finally speak out. My hope for you and everyone is that you don’t wait as long as I did, and that you’ll think about the people of color cooking your food, and question the principles of those who employ them, the next time you eat out.


The author, Peter, is a furloughed server currently quarantined in the Pacific Northwest.