LITTLE ROCK — A law firm that helped black plaintiffs settle a $54 million class-action lawsuit against the Denny’s restaurant chain in 1994 filed a similar complaint in federal court Wednesday against Cracker Barrel.
Details of the suit were unveiled at a 35-minute news conference Thursday at the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock.
The lawsuit was filed by a legal team that includes Little Rock attorney Phillip Kaplan and two Washington-based law firms. It alleges that a group of 23 black customers was discriminated against and received substandard or no service at Cracker Barrel stores in Bryant and North Little Rock.
All of the plaintiffs in the case, except one Texan, are black and reside in Arkansas.
The lawsuit asks Judge G. Thomas Eisele of the U.S. District Court in Little Rock to cite Cracker Barrel for ongoing actions that violate state and federal civil rights laws. It also asks the judge to force the popular restaurant chain to put a stop to its discriminatory practices.
The plaintiffs are not seeking class-action status in this case; however, they are asking for payment of compensatory and punitive damages for humiliation and emotional distress, among other things.
Susan Huhta, an attorney with Washington-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, called the lawsuit a “major civil rights” case.
“The allegations of these plaintiffs suggest a pattern of discrimination that has no absolutely no place in our society in 2003,” Huhta said. “When African-Americans experience discrimination in places ... like Cracker Barrel, it hearkens back to an era most Americans consider a shameful part of this country’s history.”
The Rev. Henry Harris of North Little Rock said he is taking part in the Arkansas suit because a visit to the Cracker Barrel location in Bryant left him “demoralized” and struggling to explain an incident that happened there to his grandchildren.
Harris said when he and his family visited the Cracker Barrel in March 2002 to celebrate his birthday, he noticed several white parties were being seated immediately and ahead of his family, although they arrived later.
The local minister said after a long wait without receiving service, the Cracker Barrel hostess seated the family in the smoking section at the back of the restaurant, despite Harris’ request for a nonsmoking table.
After another extended wait without receiving menus or service, Harris said he complained to a store manager who told him “there was a Burger King down the street — and you are welcome to go there.”
“The problem I had with this was that I had to explain it to my grandchildren,” Harris said. “They wanted to know: ‘Grandpa, why is it that we can’t eat here?’”
Another plaintiff, Carolyn Adkins of Mabelvale, said she and her family experienced similar treatment as the Harris family during two visits to the same Cracker Barrel store in 2000 and 2001.
Managers at both the Cracker Barrel in Bryant and the North Little Rock location referred media questions to the company’s corporate headquarters in Lebanon, Tenn.
Cracker Barrel spokeswoman Lisa Davis said the allegations against the company are “absolutely false and without merit.”
“Common sense will tell you that these (allegations) are not true,” Davis said, citing the company’s hiring practices and a national consumer survey that gave the restaurant chain high marks for service.
Davis added that pay raises, fringe benefits and advancement for hourly employees at Cracker Barrel are all tied “to treating customers well.”
“We will fight this,” she said, adding that she had no details on whether the Cracker Barrel stores in Bryant and North Little Rock have received complaints from black customers.
Montine McNulty, president of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, said she has not received any complaints about racial discrimination at the eight Cracker Barrel restaurants in Arkansas.
“No, never,” McNulty said of Cracker Barrel while taking notes at the back of the room during the news conference. McNulty’s group, which represents the restaurant and tourism industry across the state, often mediates disputes that members face. Cracker Barrel is a member of the state association, she said.
"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." - Ben Franklin, 1759