SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — The owner of Flight Restaurant is responding to FOX13 for the first time after allegations that black customers were victims of racism.
FOX13 first reported how former employees at Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar took to social media claiming customers were racially profiled, often seated upstairs or away from window seats.
Monday, the owner, Russ Graham, responded saying in part, “It’s simply not true that we seat anyone based on race. Parties are seated based on party size. We are deeply concerned by the allegations we have read online. As a leadership team we apologize if we have been insensitive in anyway.”
That statement came on the heels of FOX13 looking into other allegations of racial discrimination at another one of Graham’s restaurants The Southern Social in Germantown. Graham said he is also looking into those allegations immediately.
Dr. Michelle Culbreth told FOX13 she was out with a group of both black and white friends at the Southern Social in the summer of 2018. She said the place was packed and loud, but owner Russ Graham asked her party to leave the restaurant for being too loud.
“Initially it was loud. I thought we misheard him,” said Culbreth. “I was like, ‘I’m sorry, what?’”
Culbreth said she was shocked at the service her friends received. She said she set up a reservation there for herself and seven of her friends. Six were black and the other was white. She said they were seated in the front of the restaurant and it was packed and loud on that Friday night.
“A gentleman that had been standing kind of in my peripheral vision right at the corner, no name tag, no identification, just a suit, as we lean in he comes over and he says, ‘If you ladies can’t be quiet you’re gonna have to leave,’” Culbreth said.
Culbreth told FOX13 she didn’t take it seriously and played it off.
“Well, at that time he comes around the table, puts his finger in my face and was like ‘you get up and leave now’ to me,” she said.
After asking to speak to the manager who set up the reservation, Culbreth said the man revealed himself as the owner, Russ Graham.
Feeling they were being discriminated against, she told FOX13 her friends then decided to leave. Culbreth said Graham followed them outside and she watched as he had an exchange with one of her black friends.
“Telling her ‘you know you have to shut your mouth, you get out of my place right now. I own this. I will call the cops on you.’ Things like that,” she said.
FOX13 was able to get Graham on the phone and asked if he could comment on this specific incident and other allegations.
His reply was, “I cannot because I don’t think they happened.”
Graham later emailed a statement, saying in part, “As a leadership team we apologize if we have been insensitive in anyway. We are taking the time to be self-reflective and our first step is to determine if we need to make changes. We are currently pursuing diversity and inclusion training for the full staff and will continue to assess ways we can improve our customer experience and staff experience … We will continue to uphold our high standards of operation to ensure our customers receive the fine dining experience they have come expect.”
Culbreth said her dining experience was anything but fine.
“But I will never forget how I felt that night and how embarrassed I was because I felt like I had brought my friends to that environment where they were judged on one of two things, either because they were women or because they were black women,” she said.
FOX13 also spoke with a former worker who said her boss offered her money to stop dancing with her black friends.
Taylor Groesse told FOX13 she worked at Flight for four years. She said while hanging out with friends one night at a local club her boss Russ Graham approached her and discouraged her from dancing with her black friends.
“I said, ‘You’re really making everyone here uncomfortable and I want you to leave me alone,’" Gross told FOX13.
Groesse worked at Flight Restaurant from 2012-2016. She said she faced a troubling incident one night in 2014 while at a club. Groesse told FOX13 she was with three co-workers and four college friends. She said three of her friends were black. Groesse said Graham was also at the club and saw her in the crowd dancing.
“And Russ approached me. Like I said, I hadn’t seen him up until this point and he told me he would give me $100 to stop what I was doing,” Groesse said.
She said she was caught off guard and Graham increased his offer.
“And I said I didn’t understand and he said, ‘I’ll pay you $500 to stop dancing with black people,’” Groesse said.
Groesse said she let Graham know she wasn’t comfortable with what was said.
"And I said ‘you are making me extremely uncomfortable. These are my friends. We’re just having a good time. We’re out.’ And he said, ‘This is not how I want my employees to show our brand,’” Groesse told FOX13.
The statement Graham sent was the exact same statement Southern Social posted on its Facebook page earlier.
The entire statement reads as follows:
We are deeply concerned by the allegations we have read online. As a leadership team we apologize if we have been insensitive in anyway. The management of Flight Memphis, LLC continues to review the accusations that have been posted online. We realize that we need to be reflective, to listen and to learn as we move forward.
We are taking the time to be self-reflective and our first step is to determine if we need to make changes. We are currently pursuing diversity and inclusion training for the full staff and will continue to assess ways we can improve our customer experience and staff experience.
We do want to address one allegation related to seating of African American guests. There has never been a policy or intent to seat any specific group in any specific location. The nature of our seating arrangements are that 64% of our dining room seating is located upstairs. It’s simply not true that we seat anyone based on race, parties are seated based on party size, at the request of the party and as available wait staff dedicates.
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